Famous Musicians Who Died in Small Plane Crashes

Several musicians have died in small plane crashes over the years. A few had short careers, but their music is still as popular today as when it was first played. 

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller Portrait Session At Home
Donaldson Collection/Contributor/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Glenn Miller was a trombonist and bandleader whose performance of “Moonlight Serenade” became the sentimental signature tune of the World War II effort. He was on board an Army Air Force Noorduyn Norseman UC-64A aircraft when it vanished somewhere over the English Channel. On December 15, 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's swing band was arguably the most-loved, if not necessarily the most critically admired, orchestra of the big band era. He 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 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

Photo of Buddy Holly & The Crickets
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

On February 3, 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 experiencing trouble with their tour bus, Holly decided to charter an airplane to the trio from a venue in Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota, which was 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 and just 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 take off 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, and that 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 McLean's song "American Pie" in which he refers to the day as "the day the music died." 

Patsy Cline

Photo of Patsy Cline
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

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 5, 1963, when the Piper PA-24 Comanche she was flying in crashed in the woods near Camden, Tennessee. Cline was killed, along with Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and pilot Randy Hughes, who was also Cline's manager.

Not many details are recorded about the accident, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Hughes 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. 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 his house around 7 p.m. the day of the crash, and another witness saw the aircraft descend out of low clouds at a 45-degree nose-down pitch attitude. 

Ricky Nelson

Rick Nelson
Art Zelin/Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Second, only to Elvis, Ricky Nelson was a very popular rock 'n' 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 31, 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 sustained 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, although the reason for the fire remains unknown. Contributing factors included the pilot’s failure to complete the emergency procedures checklist. 

Reba McEntire's Band

Reba McEntire 50th Academy Of Country Music Awards - Show
Cooper Neill/Stringer/Getty Images North America

On March 16, 1991, a Hawker Siddeley DH125-1A carrying eight members of Reba McEntire’s band crashed into a mountain after taking off 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 which it had timed out by the time they had departed.

Before 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 needed 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, the VFR minimum safe altitude in that area was higher than the pilot flew.

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 On Stage
Paul Natkin/Contibutor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

John Denver was an internationally acclaimed musician, songwriter, and pilot 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, and at first, the public wondered if his plane crash was alcohol-related. However, the NTSB official report states that Denver got distracted and lost control.