Famous Musicians Who Died in Small Plane Crashes

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller
Photo: Getty/Keystone Hulton Archive

Glenn Miller, the trombonist and band leader whose performance of “Moonlight Serenade” became the sentimental signature tune of the World War II effort, was on board an Army Air Force Noorduyn Norseman UC-64A aircraft when it vanished somewhere over the English Channel.  On December 15th, 1944, the aircraft carrying Miller departed RAF Tinwood Farm near Bedfordshire, England into foggy weather. The plane never reached its destination and was never recovered.

Miller, whose swing band was arguably the most-loved, if not necessarily the most critically admired, orchestra of the big band era, joined the army at the height of his popularity in 1942 and eventually led a 50-piece Army Air Force band on an 800-show tour around Europe during the war. Miller was to perform at a concert for allied troops in Paris when his aircraft launched into the fog and disappeared forever. Some believe that the single-engine Canadian bush plane crashed into the English Channel after an encounter with fog and icing – the Norseman was known to be susceptible to carburetor icing.  Conspiracy theories abound, but most of the conspiracy theories – that Miller was found dead in Paris, that he was part of a secret war effort to overthrow Hitler, or that his airplane was taken out by bomber aircraft over the English Channel – have been widely discredited.

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly's Plane Crash
Photo: Getty/Hulton Archive

On February 3rd, 1959, renowned musician and singer-songwriter Buddy Holly died in a plane crash along with guitarist Ritchie Valens and rock and roll star J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. After trouble with their tour bus, Holly decided to charter an airplane to take the trio from a venue in Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota, the nearest airport to their next tour stop in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Arrangements were made with a local charter company in Mason City, Iowa, for the group to be flown to Fargo in a Beechcraft Bonanza. The 21-year old commercial pilot and flight instructor did not have an instrument rating, a rating necessary for flying in the clouds. He had 711 flying hours;128 of those hours were in Bonanza aircraft. Just a few minutes after departure, the aircraft was seen climbing to about 800 feet and then descending, crashing on a farm less than five miles from the airport. Accident wreckage suggests that the aircraft was in a steep spiral toward the ground in a steep right bank and slightly nose low. The wreckage also suggested that the pilot had some control over the aircraft upon impact with the ground, implying that the pilot was still trying to fly the plane, but was perhaps severely disoriented.

The accident report states that the accident was caused by the pilot’s decision to takeoff in less than ideal conditions: At night, in the winter, with a low overcast layer and snow falling, a pilot has little, if any, visual references outside. In this case, the pilot was not adequately trained for flight into less than visual meteorological conditions (VMC), and the result was the loss of control of the aircraft.

In 2015, a pilot named L.J. Coon petitioned to the NTSB to review the accident study for this particular crash, citing unresolved issues having to do with weight and balance, fuel gauges and others, and saying that the pilot was unduly blamed, when in fact, he believes that the pilot acted heroically in the last minutes of the flight.

The death of Buddy Holly served as the inspiration for Don MacLean's song "American Pie," in which he refers to the day as "the day the music died." 

Patsy Cline

Patsy Cline's Grave
Sarah Stierch ( CC BY 4.0)

In her short 30 years on earth, country music star Patsy Cline helped pave the way for females in country music. Her life ended on March 5th, 1963, at just 30 years old, when the Piper PA-24 Comanche she was flying in crashed in the woods near Camden, Tennessee, killing Cline, along with Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and pilot Randy Hughes. Not many details are recorded about the accident, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Hughes, also Cline’s manager, was flying the three musicians from a benefit concert in Kansas City back home to Nashville. He decided to land the airplane at Dyersburg, Tennessee to check the weather before continuing the flight, and even though the airport manager and a weather briefer cautioned that the weather was bad, Hughes decided to take off into IMC conditions. A nearby farmer witnessed a small plane circling around his house around 7 p.m. the day of the crash, and another witness apparently saw the aircraft descend out of low clouds at a 45-degree nose-down pitch attitude. 

Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson
Photo: Getty/Archive Photos

Second only to Elvis, Ricky Nelson was the most popular rock and roll artist in the late 1950s. Nelson was 45 years old when he was killed alongside his fiancée and five other passengers who were aboard a DC-3 bound for Dallas Love Field on December 31st, 1985. The airplane crashed into a field near De Kalb, Texas as a result of a fire in the cabin and cockpit. The pilot and co-pilot survived, but had extensive burns to their upper bodies.  

After a witness on the ground noticed the aircraft circling erratically, a helicopter was sent up to offer assistance. The helicopter pilot discovered that the aircraft was on fire and that the pilots were attempting to find a place to land. Shortly after, the airplane burst into flames and crashed, hitting a power line on the way down. The NTSB revealed the probable cause to be a cabin fire, due to an undetermined reason. Contributing factors included the pilot’s failure to complete the emergency procedures checklist. 

Reba McEntire's Band

Reba McEntire
Photo: Getty/Cooper Neill

On March 16th, 1991, a Hawker Siddeley DH125-1A (an early variant of the Hawker 800) carrying eight members of Reba McEntire’s band crashed into a mountain after a takeoff from Brown Field Municipal Airport in San Diego at night. The plane, en route to Amarillo, crashed into rising terrain just three minutes after departing under visual flight rules (VFR). The pilots had filed an IFR flight plan, although it had timed out by the time they had departed.

Prior to departure, the pilot had two conversations with a flight service specialist about how to depart the airport. He intended to depart and remain VFR until he could pick up his IFR clearance in the air. He’d need to remain outside of or below the San Diego’s Class B airspace boundary until he was able to get his clearance, so he chose to take off to the east into rising terrain and remaining low enough to skirt the boundary of Class B airspace. While departing VFR and picking up an IFR clearance once in the air is a common technique, this was a case when using the IFR departure procedure and/or getting an IFR clearance on the ground may have saved 10 lives.

Eight passengers, all members of McEntire’s band, died that night, as well as the two pilots. McEntire, along with her husband and manager, had decided to spend the night in San Diego and planned to depart in a separate aircraft the next day.  

John Denver

John Denver
Image: Public Domain

John Denver was an internationally acclaimed musician and songwriter who was also known for his humanitarian efforts. He died on October 12, 1997 when the amateur-built Adrian Davis Long-EZ aircraft he was flying crashed into Monterey Bay. According to the NTSB, Denver lost control of the aircraft while attempting to switch fuel tanks after a series of touch-and-goes at Monterey Peninsula Airport in Pacific Grove, California.  

Denver had multiple DUIs on his record, so ​at first, the public wondered if his plane crash was alcohol related. The NTSB report, however, simply states that Denver got distracted and lost control: “Contributing to the crash was the pilot's inadequate preflight planning, specifically his failure to refuel the plane. The Board further determined that the builder's decision to locate the unmarked fuel selector handle in a difficult to access location, combined with unmarked fuel gauges was a causal factor in the accident. Additionally, the Board found that the pilot failed to train himself adequately for the transition to this type of aircraft and was inexperienced flying the Long-EZ.”

The website johndenver.com claims that “Denver was an experienced airplane pilot and collected vintage biplanes. His interest in outer space was so great that he took and passed NASA’s examination to determine mental and physical fitness needed for space travel.”