The Last Flight of Nine Four November


At 12:45 AM, Charles, Jiles, and Richard hunched their shoulders slightly - it was 18 degrees in the post-midnight darkness - and hustled across the tarmac to their chartered airplane, an 11-year-old Beechcraft Bonanza bearing the registration number N3794N. Roger Peterson, the 21-year-old pilot, began taxiing to runway 17 as soon as his three passengers clambered aboard. As he did so, he radioed the control tower. He identified himself as "Nine Four November" - the last three characters of its registration number were the standard call sign for a light plane - and requested a final weather briefing.

Roger had checked the weather several times already - at 5:30 PM, 10:00 PM, 11:30 P.M., and 11:55 PM. At 12:50 AM, with Nine Four November approaching the north end of runway 17, the tower reported no significant change in the weather. For unknown reasons, the air traffic controllers didn't tell Peterson about a "flash advisory" issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau at 11:35 PM that evening. They hadn't mentioned the advisory when giving Roger his 11:55 PM weather report, either. As a result, the pilot brought the Bonanza's engines up to full power against the brakes and then began his takeoff roll without knowing that a weather front - a band of snowstorms 100 miles wide - lay across his flight path. The front, moving southeast at 25 miles per hour, was now only a few miles northwest of the airport. Nine Four November lifted off at 12:55 AM. Her destination, Fargo, North Dakota, lay to the northwest.

The chartered Bonanza took off to the south, then banked left and made a 180-degree turn. The aircraft passed by the airport to the east, gaining altitude as it headed north. Jerry Dwyer, the airplane's owner, watched it from a platform outside the control tower. Once past the airport, Nine Four November made a gentle left turn and assumed a northwesterly heading.

Jerry continued to watch the plane's red taillight receding into the darkness until, about five miles from the tower, it began to descend. Finally, it disappeared. Jerry went inside and asked the tower to call Nine Four November. The controller tried several times to make contact, but all attempts failed.

Five miles northwest of the airport, Nine Four November - flying in almost complete darkness over sleeping farmland - met the snowstorms that had been moving southeast down her flight path. Visibility dropped to zero. The Bonanza was tossed by 50-knot gusts of wind inside the storm and blinded by darkness and blowing snow. Roger Peterson, who was not certified for instrument flight, had no option. He would have to rely on Nine Four November's instruments to fly her.

Something went terribly wrong in the cockpit. Perhaps Nine Four November's attitude gyro, usually called the "artificial horizon," caused the problem. Conventional attitude gyros have a stationary representation of the horizon and a miniature, moving representation of an aircraft. The tiny airplane in the instrument moves up or down to indicate a nose-up or nose-down attitude; it tilts left or right to show left or right banking. Nine Four November, however, had a different kind of artificial horizon. This instrument had a representation of the horizon and a miniature airplane, to be sure, but the horizon, not the airplane, moved to show the various deviations from level flight. Perhaps this design, the opposite of anything Roger was familiar with, confused him.

Whatever the reason, Nine Four November began a rapid descent barely four minutes after takeoff. At the same time, she banked sharply right. Her right wing pointed almost straight down at the frozen farmland below; her left wing pointed up into the storm. She was under power, nose tipped slightly down, when her right wing touched the ground a few seconds before 1:00 AM.

Nine Four November, traveling at 165 miles per hour, instantly spun and slammed belly down into a cornfield owned by Albert Juhl. She bounced once, then tumbled and slid almost 600 feet, leaving a trail of debris, before lodging against a barbed-wire fence with her nose pointed back to the south. The wreckage, viewed from the east, looked like a badly damaged airplane. The view from the west, however - a vantage that included her belly - showed how hard the airplane had hit. Viewed from the west, what was left of Nine Four November didn't really resemble anything at all.

Charles lay face down to the southwest of the wreckage. Richard lay to the south, also face down. Jiles came to rest forty feet to the northwest, beyond the barbed-wire fence that arrested the tumbling slide of Nine Four November. Pilot Roger Peterson was pinned in the cockpit. All four were dead.

In Memoriam

The crash of Nine Four November - as a plane crash - is unremarkable; a light plane flew into a storm and crashed. But the passengers who died that night are not.

Charles was Charles Hardin Holley, born September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, Texas. His mother started calling the infant "Buddy." The nickname, common in Texas for the youngest son, stuck so firmly that the Texas Department of Public Safety issued his first driver's license under the name "Buddy Charles Holley." His first recording contract - with Decca in 1956 - misspelled his last name as Holly. He used that version, along with his nickname, as his stage name: Buddy Holly.

Jiles was Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr., born October 24, 1930, in Sabine Pass, Texas. His friends called him Jape or sometimes simply J. P. He preferred either to Jiles. The heavyset performer adopted a stage name in 1957, while working as a DJ at KTRM in Beaumont, Texas: The Big Bopper.

Richard was Richard Steven Valenzuela, born May 13, 1941, in Pacoima, California, a Los Angeles suburb. Bob Keene, president of Del Fi Records, heard Richard sing and signed him to a contract. Keene also became Richard's manager and shortened the teenager's real name to a more marketable - and pronounceable - stage name: Ritchie Valens.

Legends have grown up around the deaths of three of rock music's early giants. Many years later, Don McLean wrote and recorded a song, "American Pie," that memorialized the crash and lamented the loss suffered by rock and roll. He called February 3, 1959, the day of the crash, "The Day the Music Died." That designation is still used and still valid. The three performers who died in the crash collectively sold 10 million records worldwide in the 12 months prior to their deaths. Holly recorded eight Top 40 songs in the two years prior to the crash, averaging a major hit every three months. Valens, discovered at age 16 and dead less than a year later, still had time to make a movie and to write and record two songs that went gold. The Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" was one of 1958's most requested songs.

Most Buddy Holly fans know the familiar stories about the last flight of Nine Four November. Holly, Richardson, Valens, and several other performers were touring the Midwest in a mobile event its organizers called the "Winter Dance Party." The tour schedule was exhausting and the tour bus unreliable. Holly chartered an airplane for himself and two of his backup musicians, guitarists Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, so they could get to the next tour site early. (Holly's drummer, Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite on the unheated tour bus and couldn't accompany the others.)

The Big Bopper, ill from the grueling schedule and the cold bus rides, heard about the flight and asked Jennings to give up his seat. Jennings did so, an act of kindness that saved his life. Ritchie Valens, a teenager who had never flown in a small plane, begged Allsup to give up his seat. Tommy finally agreed to a coin toss. Valens won the toss and boarded Nine Four November with Holly and Richardson. Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, of course, survived and still enjoy highly successful musical careers.

A story that might be true involves another rock and roll great. The Winter Dance Party tour included an up-and-coming group called Dion and the Belmonts. Legend says Dion could have flown on Nine Four November, but he declined to pay the $36 pro-rata cost of the flight.

Don McLean's musical tribute, "American Pie", gave rise to the story that the death plane was named American Pie. Nine Four November had no name, American Pie or otherwise, but this myth continues to circulate.

Certainly one of the wilder stories has Buddy Holly boarding the plane with a loaded gun. According to this tale, Holly's gun turned up in the wreckage, as did a bullet hole in the back of the pilot's seat. Supposedly, an argument arose on the flight and someone fired the gun. The shot - whether accidental or deliberate - killed or incapacitated the pilot, dooming everyone on the plane.

We really don't need wild stories to keep alive the memories of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. Their music still influences performers all over the world. Rock and roll has never lost, before or since, such an immense body of talent as it did when these three stars died. We won't forget that.

With the new millennium, we will start seeing the inevitable lists that mark significant milestones in the United States. We seem to have a need to identify and prioritize the pivotal events and defining moments in our history. When those lists appear, the top spots for the twentieth century will justifiably go to such moments and events as the flight at Kitty Hawk, VE Day, the discovery of penicillin, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the first moon landing. But I like to think that somewhere, perhaps down near the bottom, the list makers will find room for a note about the last flight of Nine Four November, on the day the music died.

Copyright © 2000.  All Rights Reserved.