Why Reba McEntire's Band Died in a Plane Crash

Reba McEntire in concert.
••• Cooper Neill / Getty Images

Any plane crash involving a celebrity naturally gains a lot of attention from the media, and the 1991 plane crash that killed eight of Reba McEntire’s band members is no different. McEntire was devastated, and people wanted to know how two experienced pilots could just crash right into the side of a mountain. Country music fans were saddened by the loss of a great band to such a tragedy, and as aviation professionals, pilots were dismayed that lives were lost in an accident that could have easily been prevented.

This plane crash should serve as a warning for pilots everywhere regarding a number of topics, including departure procedures, night flying hazards, controlled flight into terrain, evaluating risk, VFR/IFR clearances, and the role of flight service specialists in offering pilots guidance and advice about the flight.  

According to the NTSB accident report, the Hawker Siddeley DH.125-1A/52 aircraft (an older version of the Hawker 800) crashed into a mountain after takeoff from Brown Field Municipal Airport on March 16, 1991. The two pilots and eight passengers on board were killed, including seven band members and a manager from country superstar Reba McEntire’s band. McEntire, along with her husband, who was also her manager, had decided to spend the night in San Diego before flying out the next morning.

The flight was to be operated on an instrument flight plan from Brown Field, located just outside of San Diego’s Class B airspace, to Amarillo, Texas, which would serve as a fuel stop before continuing. Curiously, the pilot spoke to the flight service specialist not once but three times in an effort to figure out how to best depart the airport.

During the first conversation with the flight service specialist, the pilot filed an IFR flight plan. It was about 11:20 p.m. local time, and the pilot asked about departing the airport under VFR and picking up his IFR clearance once airborne. The briefer asked the pilot if he was familiar with the departure procedure, and the pilot said, “No, not really.” The flight service specialist then attempted to look up the departure procedures in order to relay the information to the pilot, and there was some confusion about where to locate the procedures.

Neither the pilot nor the briefer was able to find them quickly. The pilot finally determined that he would look up the procedure in the approach charts himself. 

At about 11:53 p.m. the pilot called the flight service specialist again and reported that he wasn’t able to find the standard instrument departure procedure referred to by the specialist. During the conversation, it was discussed that the SID was located in the STAR (standard terminal arrivals) section of the terminal procedures book, and the procedures were read to the pilot. The pilot stated that was all he needed and the phone call ended.

A third phone call was made to the flight service station at 12:28 a.m. by the pilot, and this time the pilot questioned the use of an IFR departure procedure that would take him into the Class B airspace boundary. The pilot knew that by using the standard instrument departure procedure as a VFR pilot, he would potentially be in the Class B airspace before he received his clearance, which would be problematic since a clearance is required to enter Class B airspace. During the last phone call, the pilot questioned the specialist about that procedure, reminding him that he intends to depart VFR and suggests that he should probably just depart to the northeast and stay VFR below 3,000 feet.

The briefer agreed, saying “Yeah, sure, that’ll be fine.” 

Neither the flight service specialist nor the pilot took into consideration the rising terrain east of the airport, and neither of them noted that the minimum sector altitude (MSA) east of the airfield, in the direction of departure, was 7,600 feet - well above the 3,000-foot altitude that the pilot chose to fly. The VFR minimum safe altitude for that particular sector was 6,900 feet.

The pilot departed Runway 8 at Brown Field at 1:41 a.m. The weather at a nearby airport was reported to be clear, visibility was at least 10 miles, and winds were calm. Witnesses reported that the clouds might have been closer to 4,000 feet around the accident area. Just one minute after takeoff, the aircraft contacted the approach control facility to request his IFR clearance and was told that his clearance had clocked out, but to stand by and the controller would put it back in the system. The airplane crashed into the San Isidro Mountains at an elevation of about 3,300 feet just moments after being assigned a squawk code by ATC.

The peak of the mountain range, according to the VFR sectional, sits at about 3,550 feet.  

According to investigators, the airplane’s wing hit the top of the mountain, and it cartwheeled multiple times, scattering wreckage over a wide area. The NTSB report found the probable cause of the accident to be: “Improper planning/decision by the pilot, the pilot's failure to maintain proper altitude and clearance over mountainous terrain, and the copilot's failure to adequately monitor the progress of the flight. Factors related to the accident were: insufficient terrain information provided by the flight service specialist during the preflight briefing after the pilot inquired about a low altitude departure, darkness, mountainous terrain, both pilot's lack of familiarity with the geographical area, and the copilot's lack of familiarity with the aircraft.”

This accident is a cautionary tale for all pilots to be vigilant when departing either VFR or IFR at night, especially in unfamiliar territory. Had these pilots taken the time to get an IFR clearance on the ground, or taken a moment to take a look at the minimum sector altitude (MSA) on an IFR approach or departure chart or a VFR chart may have spared 10 lives that night.

After the accident, the investigators interviewed the operator of the aircraft to try to discern why the pilots were unaware of the surrounding terrain, even after flying into the airport in the daylight hours. One report says that the investigators asked the owner of Duncan Aircraft Sales, who was operating the aircraft, if the pilots had VFR sectional charts with them. The response, maybe not surprising, is perhaps representative of an imprudent safety culture: “This is a goddamn jet outfit, we don’t carry VFR charts.”