The story of what happened the day the music died—when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) all perished in a plane crash in Iowa in 1959—is well told. Don McLean’s most famous song, “American Pie,” traces the effects of the crash on rock and roll history. (McLean opted not to explicitly state the song’s meaning, preferring lines like, “It means I never have to work again”—zing! Listen to it here.) Author Les MacDonald wrote a fairly comprehensive history of the crash, the events leading up to it, and its impact. And any biography of either Buddy Holly or Waylon Jennings will spend a fair amount of time talking about the plane ride. (Jennings gave up his seat on the flight to Richardson, who was sick with the flu.)
A plane that crashed 56 years ago is very much in the history books, in other words—but it’s possible those books will have to add a new chapter. As the Des Moines Register reported last week:
The Civil Aeronautics Board ruled on Sept. 23, 1959, that the crash’s cause was pilot error and deficiencies in the weather briefing to the pilot. But 56 years later, officials with the National Transportation Safety Board say its cold case unit is considering reopening the investigation.
L.J. Coon, a New England man who describes himself as a retired pilot, aircraft dispatcher and Federal Aviation Administration test proctor, petitioned the NTSB to look at several possible contributing factors that may clear the name of pilot Roger Peterson, who died in the crash at age 21.
“You have gotten our attention,” the NTSB wrote to Coon in a Feb. 19, 2015, email, promising to look into information that he provided. A decision on whether to reopen the case could take several weeks.
Not much is known about Coon or his background with the crash at the moment. It’s certainly interesting that he’s invested in clearing the name of a pilot who died 56 years ago, but whether Coon knew Peterson or had any personal experience with the flight itself is unclear.
Coon wrote that “there were other issues involving weight and balance calculations, the rate of the plane’s climb and descent, fuel gauge readings, and the passenger-side rudder” that might point to factors other than pilot error that led to the crash. That’s a theory that’s been voiced before, according to the Minneapolis Public Radio blog, which explains that the 21-year-old pilot wasn’t “instrument rated” (a rating issued by the Federal Aviation Administration assuring that a pilot has logged a certain number of training hours and is familiar with flight instruments, etc.) And the Air Safety Foundation claims that a pilot who isn’t instrument rated and is flying in the conditions that Holly’s plane was in has a life expectancy of about three minutes. Essentially Minneapolis Public Radio suspects that while there might be headlines here, Coon’s letter probably isn’t going to amount to much action.
This isn’t the first time that theories about the crash have been floated, or even the first time in recent years that an investigation was undertaken to put those theories to rest. Specifically, a gun that was found with Holly after the crash—which was never mentioned in the Civil Aeronautics Board’s report—was the source of a lot of speculation that perhaps an accidental gunshot on the flight had caused the crash. The fact that Richardson was found forty feet from the crash site, unlike the other passengers, fueled the speculation that perhaps the circumstances of his death differed from the rest of the plane and may have involved a gun shot.
That theory was refuted in 2007, however, after Richardson’s son had his father’s corpse exhumed and a new autopsy performed. The findings there concluded that Richardson died on impact in the crash, with no evidence of a bullet wound, the same as everyone else.
All of which is to say: sometimes a crashed plane piloted by someone young, through bad weather, and without full use of all instruments is exactly what it looks like. Sometimes it isn’t, though—and the NTSB will presumably determine soon whether there’s enough to the new theory to reopen the investigation.