What Went Wrong On The Day Music Died?

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died exactly 50 years ago Tuesday in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, says the conditions were similar to what John F. Kennedy Jr. faced during his fatal crash.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Fifty years ago today, at around 1:00 in the morning, a small charter plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in a field in Iowa. All three were killed, along with the pilot. It became, in Don McLean's song, "American Pie," The Day the Music Died.

Bruce Landsberg has been thinking about that crash. He's executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation. He says the young pilot had checked the weather several times, but conditions were much worse than forecast.

Mr. BRUCE LANDSBERG (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation): At the time that he actually launched, the weather was actually down to about a 3,000-foot ceiling, and the winds were gusting up to 30-plus knots and it was snowing heavily.

BLOCK: Snowing heavily, and what would he have seen from the cockpit as he climbed?

Mr. LANDSBERG: Well, if you're at all familiar with Iowa, it's pretty sparsely populated, and once you get away from the airport, you're not going to see anything. It's going to be just dark out there. And just to, perhaps, make a reference to something that the listeners may be more familiar with, this is not unlike what John F. Kennedy, Jr. would have faced on his last flight out over the ocean.

BLOCK: And if he was unable to use visual cues, he'd have to be relying on instruments. Was he able to do that?

Mr. LANDSBERG: That's exactly correct. And in both cases, both JFK Jr. and our young pilot here, they obviously were not able to keep the airplane upright by reference to the flight instruments.

One other thing that is interesting in both cases, the pilots had a little bit of instrument training, so they weren't going into it totally unprepared. And in the case of the Buddy Holly accident, the instrument that the - that was installed on the aircraft read differently than the instrument that he had trained on.

So, if the aircraft was making a right turn, it would appear on this instrument to be making a left turn, which makes it very difficult to sort things out quickly when you're close to the ground and in moderate turbulence.

BLOCK: You know, you can imagine the pressure on this young pilot - 21-years-old, and you've got famous musicians needing to get to a show. Who are you to say I'm not going to take off?

Mr. LANDSBERG: Well, this is what we like to refer to as the mission mentality. And we also like to tell pilots, you know, there's no place that you really have to be.

BLOCK: Well, I guess that's easier said than done, though, isn't it?

Mr. LANDSBERG: Well, when you consider what's at stake and the fact that you're dealing with people's lives. And one of the things that would've made a huge difference is if they had just waited until 10:00 the next morning, they would have made the flight in bright sunshine and gotten to Moorhead, Minnesota in plenty of time to do the show.

BLOCK: What do you think the lessons are or, in hindsight, anything that might be different now than it was 50 years ago with this flight?

Mr. LANDSBERG: Well, I think the lessons are the weather is what you see, not what the forecast is. The fact that the pilot checked the weather so many times before he departed shows me that he had some serious misgivings about it. And what we would tell pilots is you need to listen to that inner voice. If there's something that's telling you that it isn't quite right, it's usually right.

BLOCK: Mr. Landsberg, after this accident 50 years ago, did people start to associate flying in small planes with being unsafe? Did it have that effect on people?

Mr. LANDSBERG: I think there has been that perception, and for a lot of people, that's true. One of the things that we do, and the Air Safety Foundation was founded in 1950, so we've been at this for a long time, is to advise people that it doesn't have to be that way. And there are literally tens of thousands of flights completed every day in light aircraft in complete safety. So we like to tell people it's as safe as you choose to make it.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Landsberg, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. LANDSBERG: The pleasure was mine, Melissa, and safe flights to you.

BLOCK: Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation. He was talking about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper 50 years ago today.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh Donna")

Mr. RITCHIE VALENS (Singer): (Singing) Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna.

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