THE TOP TEN Worst Rock Star Plane Crashes
What is it about famous musicians that makes them believe it’d be a swell idea to charter a small, unreliable aircraft through inclement weather? Music history is quite literally littered with the tragic wreckage of such ill-fated journeys. Blender.com examines the 10 worst rock & roll air disasters and the sometimes dubious decisions that led to them. / By David Peisner / Blender.com, December 2006
What is it about famous musicians that makes them believe it’d be a swell idea to charter a small, unreliable aircraft through inclement weather? Music histo... more
Having just finished shooting a video for her single, “Rock the Boat” in the Bahamas, rising R&B princess Aaliyah hired a private plane to ferry her and her crew back to Florida in 2001. Before takeoff, baggage handlers and the plane’s pilot complained that Aaliyah’s entourage had too much luggage, but the passengers apparently refused to leave anything behind. The plane was therefore well beyond its weight capacity when it crashed shortly after liftoff, killing Aaliyah and five other passengers instantly and leaving three others with injuries they would also later succumb to. Autopsy reports revealed that the pilot, who’d recently been arrested for cocaine possession, had both alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the accident. He’d also been fired by another aviation company a mere four hours before the fatal flight after he’d failed to turn up for work two days in a row.
On October 12th, 1997, the wildly popular (if critically lambasted) country star and avid amateur pilot was at the controls of an experimental single-engine plane he’d bought only a few days earlier, when he apparently ran into trouble flying low over the California coastline. Running low on gas, the “Leaving, On a Jet Plane” songwriter was likely trying to switch to his auxiliary tank, when he accidentally applied the plane’s right rudder and plunged 500 feet into the Pacific Ocean below. Denver had previously walked away unscathed from an accident involving a 1931 biplane he’d been piloting, but this time he was not so lucky. Rescue crews arrived less than 30 minutes after the plane went down, but by the time Denver’s mangled body was removed from Monterey Bay shortly thereafter, he was already dead.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
In 1990, the Texan bluesman had just finished a scorching set alongside fellow blues guitar virtuosos Robert Cray , Buddy Guy , Eric Clapton and his brother Jimmie Vaughan at a Wisconsin amphitheater and was preparing for a bus trek to Chicago. At the last minute, Stevie was told there was room for him, Jimmie and Jimmie’s wife on one of four helicopters Clapton had hired to make the trip to the Windy City. As it turned out, there was only one seat; Jimmie let Stevie have it. Taking off in light fog, Stevie’s helicopter quickly slammed into the side of a ski hill, killing him and four others on board. The crash went unnoticed until the chopper failed to arrive in Chicago and was found early the next morning scattered across the side of the hill.
Nelson had graduated from his childhood success as “Ricky” on his parents’ TV show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in the early '50s to genuine rock idol status in the late '50s and early '60s, but by the mid-'80s he was a nostalgia act on a package tour of the South trying to revive his career. After closing his set in Gunnersville, Alabama with a version of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” Nelson hopped on a chartered DC3 bound for Dallas. A fire in the passenger cabin caused the pilot to attempt an emergency landing in DeKalb, Texas but the plane plowed into wires, utility poles and trees on the way down. Nelson was one of seven passengers who perished in the crash. Rumors that the cabin fire was caused by
On March 18th, 1982, the metal guitar whiz was on his way to a festival in Orlando, Florida, touring as part of Ozzy Osbourne’s band. The band bunked down for the night at the bus driver’s house in Leesburg, Florida. Early the next morning, the driver took Rhoads and one other crewmember on an early morning airplane joyride. Once in the air, the bus driver — who had cocaine in his system and was flying on an expired pilot’s license — decided it’d be a great idea to “buzz” the tour bus where Ozzy was still sleeping. Their first three low-altitude passes were successful, but on their fourth flyby, the plane’s right wing hit the tour bus, puncturing its side panel. The plane then took out a pine tree before slamming into a house and bursting into flames. Neither the house, the plane nor the three passengers aboard it survived.
The legendary Southern rockers had just released their 1977 album, Street Survivors, when they chartered a plane to take them from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Engine problems caused the plane to run out of gas and crash into a wooded swamp in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Cassie Gaines were all killed, and most of the rest of the bandmembers were seriously injured. Rumors that Van Zant had been decapitated in the crash by a Betamax video player persist today despite copious evidence to the contrary. Immediately following the crash, drummer Artimus Pyle ran nearly a mile with broken ribs to get help from a nearby farmhouse, but the farmer freaked at the sight of the bloodied drummer and shot him in the shoulder with a shotgun, further injuring him but sparing his life.
On September 20th, 1973, folk singer Jim Croce played a concert at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He planned to spend the night in town before heading to Texas for another college show, but changed his plans at the last minute and flew out on a small, twin-engine plane shortly after his show. He reportedly got only about 30 feet off the ground in Natchitoches, when his plane clipped the top of a tree at the end of a dimly-lit airstrip and crashed into the ground, killing Croce and all four others on board. His third album, I Got a Name, recorded a week before his death, was released two weeks later and quickly became a hit.
Otis Redding/The Bar-Kays
In early December 1967, Otis Redding was nearly finished recording what would soon be his biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” when he and his band, the Bar-Kays, embarked on a short promotional tour. After a stop in Cleveland, the band flew on Redding’s private plane through icy weather to play a show in Madison, Wisconsin. They never made it. The plane plunged into the frigid waters of Lake Monona, outside Madison, killing Redding and four members of the Bar-Kays. Booker T. & the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper later put the finishing touches on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” but left Redding’s whistling — which had originally been a placeholder for a third verse Redding hadn’t yet written — in tact, and the song became Redding’s biggest hit.
In 1963, country star Patsy Cline flew to Kansas City to play a benefit show for the widow of a local radio DJ. Her plans to fly back to Nashville were delayed a day by bad weather. The following day, Cline reportedly turned down an offer to drive back to Music City with singer Dottie West, instead boarding a small four-seat airplane carrying fellow country singers Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, and flown by her manager, Randy Hughes. The plane skirted bad weather back towards Tennessee, then made a pit stop for gas and dinner in a town called Dyersburg. Hughes called his wife who told him the sun was shining in Nashville. Based on her weather report, Hughes flew right into the heart of a storm and crashed into a wooded swamp outside Camden, TN, killing everyone on board.
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardso
Holly, Valens and Richardson were barnstorming through the Midwest in 1959 on a package tour and looking to avoid a frigid February ride from Iowa to Minnesota aboard a bus whose heater was on the blink. Holly chartered a plane for himself and two bandmates, but guitarist Tommy Allsup lost a coin flip to Valens for one seat on the plane, and Holly’s bass player, future country star Waylon Jennings, graciously gave up his seat to Richardson, who was running a fever. Holly reportedly needled Jennings about his decision, telling him, “I hope your old bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, I hope your plane crashes.” Crash it did, into a snowy Iowa field, shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard, and forever memorializing February 3, 1959 as “The Day the Music Died.”
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