It was called the day the music died.
In the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, a chartered plane carrying musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson – known as the Big Bopper – crash landed shortly after takeoff from Mason City, Iowa. The crash killed the three men as well as Roger Peterson, the pilot, .
After the crash, the Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), initially attributed the incident primarily to pilot error but also poor weather conditions (PDF). The conditions could have proved daunting for an untrained pilot because in the dark above snow-covered, flat terrain, it would be difficult to distinguish between the ground and the horizon without relying on navigational instruments. According to the report, Peterson did not have the necessary qualifications to fly instrument-guided planes. This official story that has gone unchallenged for almost six decades, but now the NTSB could be giving the crash a second look.
According to the Des Moines Register, L.J. Coon, whom the paper says describes himself as "a retired pilot, aircraft dispatcher and Federal Aviation Administration test proctor," petitioned the NTSB to reopen the investigation. He wanted agency investigators to consider if issues with the plane's rudder pedals caused Peterson to lose control of the plane. Coon's hypothesis is that Peterson may have tried to glide the single-engine plane for an emergency landing before the plane's right wing hit the ground, which sent it careening into a cornfield. CNN reported as part of Coon's petition, he included the aircraft's weight and balance calculations, which factor into the weight of luggage, passengers, and fuel
"I believe that the NTSB will review pilot Peterson's diagnostic actions in the aircraft during this 3.5-minute flight and realize the heroic efforts that took place in those 4.9 miles," Coon told the Register in an email exchange.
On February 19, Coon received an email from the NTSB, which read, "You have gotten our attention." CNN reported the NTSB has two months to determine if Coon's petition has raised enough questions to reopen an investigation. According to the Register, the board reopens investigations only when new evidence surfaces or the previously detailed findings turn out to be irrelevant.
"Our cases are never closed, and we get these from time to time," NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss told the Register. "The key is if there is new information not previously considered by the board."
The crash has taken a place in music folklore with thousands of music buffs making the pilgrimage through the years to the the the final resting place of these rock pioneers just north of Clear Lake, Iowa and there is an annual ball at the Surf Ballroom to honor the men. The Surf Ballroom was the site of Holly's, Valens's, and the Bopper's final performance.
Holly, originally from Lubbock, Texas, learned piano and fiddle when he was a young boy and got his start in music playing country on a local radio station, according to KVUE an ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas reported, but later switched to rock 'n roll in the early 1950's. In 1955 at age 19, he opened for Elvis, according to KVUE. In Holly's 22 years on earth he wrote and recorded such hits as "Peggy Sue," “Oh, Boy!,” “Maybe Baby,” “Early in the Morning,” and shortly before the crash the Crickets had just released number one hit "That'll be the Day." Holly wrote all of his music, many of which was released posthumously and his sound inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, to History.com. Holly was portrayed by Gary Busey in a 1978 movie "The Buddy Holly Story."
Valens, originally born Richard Stevens Valenzuela in the outskirts of Los Angeles, was just 17 at the time of the crash. For a young artist he was able to record multiple hits in a rather short period of time, most notably "La Bamba," a traditional Mexican wedding song that Valens arranged as a rock number, according to History.com. Valens' life was adapted to the silver screen into in 1987's "La Bamba" where Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens.
Richardson was 27 at the time of his death. He began his career in music as a disc jockey for a radio station in Texas and later picked up songwriting, according History.com. He recorded one top 10 single, which was a rockabilly tune titled, "Chantilly Lace.” He received his nickname "The Big Bopper" because he would inject his radio personality into his performances, according to the History.com report.
Country star Waylon Jennings was a young bassist performing with Holly. He was supposed to accompany Holly on the flight to the next concert stop on the 24-city run in Morehead, Minn. as part of Winter Dance Party Tour, but instead gave his seat to Richardson, who wasn't feeling well, according to Ultimate Classic Rock. When Jennings had decided to take the bus and wrote in his auto-biography that Holly joked, "Well, I hope your ol' freezes up," to which Jennings responded, ""Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes," a seemingly innocent joke that haunted him the rest of his life until his passing in 2002, according to People Magazine.
When the music died in February of 1959, rock 'n roll was in its infancy, which in a lot of ways made this rock's first tragedy. Perhaps that is why intrigue in the crash has never really waned in subsequent generations of rock fans. In the years following, rumors swirled about how guns were found at the scene of the crash, a dispute between the musicians, among other rumors, the Register reported.
The crash is immortalized in Don McClean's 1971 hit single American Pie. Near the end of the song McClean sings, "And the three men I admired the most: the father, the son, and the holy ghost (in reference to the three musicians), they caught the last train for the coast. The day the music died."
Holly’s iconic black-rimmed glasses had landed in a snow bank following the crash, and they were discovered in the spring of 1959, after the snow melted, according to Ultimate Classic Rock. They were brought to a local sherrif's office, sealed in an envelope, and then forgotten for 21 years. In March 1980, the glasses resurfaced and were returned to his widow, according to the report. They are currently on permanent display at the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas.