'That'll be the day' - when Alta pilot's name is cleared

Monday, August 6, 2018
The crash scene on "The Day the Music Died.' Top left, pilot Roger Peterson from Alta was blamed for the tragedy. Lower left, rock 'n' roll icon Buddy Holly was only 22 at the time of his death, one year older than the pilot.

A retired flight expert continues to pressure the National Transportation Safety Board for a new investigation into the Iowa crash that killed rock 'n roll pioneer Buddy Holly. That investigation, he feels, could clear the name of a 21-year-old pilot from Alta who flew the Beechcraft Bonanza on February 3, 1959, "The Day the Music Died."

After three years of inaction by the NTSB, the petitioner's patience is wearing thin.

L.J. Coon, who identifies himself as a pilot, aircraft dispatcher and former test proctor for the Federal Aviation Administration, thinks the Civil Aeronautics Board, predecessor to the NTSB, got it wrong when it ruled shortly after the crash that an "unwise decision" to fly in bad weather by pilot Roger Peterson caused the small plane to plummet.

Holly, fed up with freezing bus rides between his gigs spread across the midwest, had chartered the plane after playing a "Winter Dance Party" concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. He, fellow performers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), as well as the pilot, were all killed in the brutal impact.

Coon has dedicated himself for several years to investigating photos of the crash scene, insider information on the plane model, weather reports from the time of the tragedy, and scraps of information from witnesses - which he hopes is enough to prove that the young pilot was not at fault.

In fact, Peterson should be remembered for "the heroic effort" he made to try to save his passengers, Coon suggests.

After nearly 60 years years, the NTSB is far from eager to revisit an investigation that would likely spur sensational headlines and controversy.

"You have gotten our attention," agency officials told Coon in 2015, but the investigation seems no closer to happening today than it was then.

"I can understand your frustration of not having anyone answer your emails or address your petition since January 6, 2017," NTSB Director Robert Sumwalt recently wrote to Coon, but promised no action. Due to workload, he soothed, petitions can "often take time to resolve."

"Please allow the process to take place going forward - albeit very slow," Sumwalt said.

The agency receives about eight or nine petitions every year to change its findings or reopen an investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal, but according to Coon, a retired executive of that agency told him it has only changed a "probable cause" decision once in its history - and that was after being "embarrassed into such action by its own staff." He was told that non-qualified staffers are assigned to write responses to petitions without ever addressing the issues that have been raised.

"A lot of folks worldwide want to know," Coon told the Pilot-Tribune this week.

After the Pilot-Tribune broke the story in January of 2015, major newspapers, magazines and TV networks picked up on it, but all that attention failed to motivate the NTSB to agree to reopen investigation. As a result, "a lot of misinformation" continues to linger, Coon says.

Meanwhile, production of a new movie on the latter stages of Buddy Holly's life, to be dubbed, "Clear Lake," was announced in Variety magazine in July. The movie, to be filmed in cooperation with the singer's widow, will begin shooting in February to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the plane crash, with a $12 million budget. The film will follow Holly and Clarence Collins, founder of Little Anthony & the Imperials, as they tour together in the racially charged days of 1958 as part of the "Biggest Show of Stars Tour," on through Holly's death.

Although the filmmakers say they plan to steer clear of depicting the actual crash, Coon hoped the new movie may help attract attention to his cause.

He sent the photos he collected of the scene to the producer, who suggests that Coon's investigation is worth a separate project. "A TV documentary would be perfect," he wrote to Coon.

"This is fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. It's wild that most everything you read talks about The Snow Storm, but this is strong evidence otherwise. Extremely interesting!" filmmaker Patrick Shanahan added.

Coon hints that eventually, the 65-page petition he has filed with the NTSB will be the basis for a book, and possibly a film project.

While the original investigation claimed Peterson had taken off into low visibility conditions he was not qualified to fly in, and the incident as a result has always been depicted as "a Hollywood snowstorm," Coon claims that four adults witnessed the takeoff at the small Iowa airport, and all four said it had not been snowing at the time. Records indicate that snow only fell the following morning, before the wreckage was found. The ceiling was estimated at 3,000 feet just before takeoff, fine for the flight.

In fact, there couldn't have been a snowstorm that would have prevented the pilot from seeing, because all the witnesses at the airport had reported that the could see the red lights of the plane from miles away as it moved to the horizon.

Witnesses described a normal takeoff, with the pilot executing a climbing left turn and settling into proper course, Coon says. About three and a half minutes later, the Bonanza went down less than five miles into the flight, just out of sight of those who were at the airport.

The owner of the flying service Peterson was working for, Jerry Dwyer, was never allowed to speak at the hearings following the crash, and always maintained that "the CAB got it wrong," the owner's widow said. She reported that Peterson had considerably more experience in the plane than the official report claimed, and said her husband trusted the young pilot and knew he could do the job.

The charter owner, now deceased, had noted in an interview that Peterson had flown cross-country with no problems.

Coon quotes Dwyer, "They said he was not familiar with this airplane, which is a crock. If you drove your car out to California and to New York and Florida a few times, you would probably be familiar with how the lights worked and a few other things."

Dwyer hinted that he had secret information on the crash that he planned to reveal in a book, but had fell ill before he could write it. The owner had also apparently saved the wreckage of the plane, but some years later, after souvenir-hunters had damaged his buildings trying to get to it, it was taken away to an unknown location, according to Coon, and any of it may or may not still exist to be examined.

Coon believes mechanical failure, not pilot error, caused the crash, and that Peterson had properly attempted to make an emergency landing on a frozen field, as evidenced by the testimony of a woman who observed the plane descending while hanging curtains in a window at her home. She confirmed seeing the landing light lit, which indicates that Peterson had remained in control despite what Coon suggests was likely a serious problem that had developed in the elevator/stabilizer of the plane. The slightly dipped nose of the plane that the woman described was correct for a forced landing attempt, with Peterson apparently hoping he could settle the plane on its belly to scrub off speed.

The crash investigation indicated that the navigation equipment had been properly set for the course from the Mason City airport to Fargo, N.D. where the performers were to have their next concert.

Despite manufacturer claims that the Beech featured "a strong crash-resistant cabin compartment that would protect passengers during a forced landing," the plane failed to live up to its survivability claims, Coon said. The cabin ripped open, and all the passengers were ejected well before the plane slid to a stop against a field fence. Only pilot Peterson's body remained inside, still at the controls.

Some corrosion in the elevator area under the skin of the plane can be seen on the historic photos of the crash site, Coon says. Holly was found with much of his brain missing, and Coon feels the wing of the cartwheeling plane had struck him in the head after he was thrown out.

Coon also theorizes that Peterson may have been saddled with an improperly loaded plane. While the Beech was a sturdy four-seater, it had strict limits for cargo weight capacity. The pilot and Holly in the front seats weighed about 160 pounds each, but Valens and Richardson in the back totaled perhaps 460, and they, along with a full load of the performers' luggage and the weight of fuel, may have caused imbalance. Coon also wants answers on whether the plane had been correctly fueled before takeoff, and wonders if someone had offloaded fuel to get to the plane's weight limit. He said there was no report of fire at the crash site or fuel spilled as one would expect with a plane carrying 250 gallons for a 90-minute flight. Reporters at the scene never mentioned a smell of aviation fuel. The investigation mentioned settings on the other gauges in the plane, but conspicuously failed to note reading on the fuel gauge, whether there was fuel found in the wing tanks or engine, and whether fueling caps had been closed after fueling, Coon said.

He further questions whether newly-installed Sperry altitude gyro instruments had been properly tested, and whether the "V tail" hat that had been retrofitted to the plane worked properly.

He isn't buying the story that Peterson was disoriented and lost control due to inexperience.

"Roger would have flown out and about this airport at night, under multiple different conditions," Coon told the Pilot-Tribune. "He had to be very familiar with all directions of this airport in and out."

Coon theorizes that if Holly, in the front passenger seat, had twisted to his left to face the rear passengers, his foot could have struck the right rudder pedal, sending the plane veering sideways and forcing pilot Peterson to struggle to correct the aircraft while already dealing with a heavy workload. The pedal was placed so close to the passenger's seat by the manufacturer that they were sometimes removed to avoid just such an accident, he indicates.

Some other reports theorize that Holly and Richardson had attempted to switch seats while the plane was in the air, based on the pattern of ejection of the victims, but that can never be proven or disproven.

Rumors abound to this day - one claiming that aviation enthusiast Holly had pressured the young pilot to let him try the controls, another that there was some kind of struggle on board and a pistol belonging to Holly and found in the snow at the scene had been fired. There is no evidence of either being true.

Coon plans to continue his crusade to right what he sees as an injustice against the Alta native.

However, the campaigner Coon is a bit of a mystery himself. He communicates only through occasional emails, identifies his location only vaguely as "New England" in every media story, and while he apparently dabbles in songwriting and performing himself, has not commented publicly on any connection to the fatal flight or the lost singers or pilot.

Coon does admit that even a new investigation isn't assured of changing the ruling marring Peterson's legacy.

"At this time I am not sure that any of the current findings and reported information over the years will clear pilot Roger Peterson," he says. "Even so, inviting a larger picture of all the contributing factors to be examined, could clear up some of the questions."

Six decades after the crash, the performers are as beloved as ever. With a career of only a year and a half, Holly is described by critic Bruce Eder as "the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll." His works and innovations were copied by the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and exerted a profound influence on popular music. Valens didn't live to see his 18th birthday, but his signature song "La Bamba", and his role as a forefather of the Chicano rock movement, remain.

The pilot, who also lost his life, meanwhile, was all but forgotten.

"He was a young man who built his life around flying," the Civil Aeronautics Board reflected in its report following the crash. He had begun flying at age 16, had his license just after graduating high school, and by 21, had over 700 hours of flight experience, and a year as a charter flight pilot and flight instructor under his belt.

The eldest of four children, Peterson grew up in Alta and had married his high school sweetheart, Deanne Lenz, the September before. They had just established a home in Clear Lake, not far from the Mason City airport. The career he was passionate about seemed assured.

For the rest of their lives, Roger Peterson's parents, Arthur and Pearl, who continued to live in Alta, hoped that their son would be remembered in the same breath with the more famous personalities lost in the crash. They received letters of condolence from the families of Holly and Valens. While long lines of adoring fans attended Holly's memorial, a quiet Iowa funeral was held for the pilot, and a small marker in a Storm Lake cemetery denotes his grave site, etched with a tiny plane.

Some have remembered -- an international group of Holly fans in the 1990s started to present a music scholarship to local students in the pilot's name, as they had in the home areas of the rock 'n' roll pioneers. A 6-foot monument was erected at the Surf Ballroom in 1988 - remembering all four men lost. Peterson's parents and widow met the survivors of all three of the lost performers, gathered for the first time there. A memorial tree to Peterson was planted at the crash site. His role in the tragedy is also recalled in movies and biographies of each of the performers.

One online memorial site to Peterson has hundreds of comments from people all over the world, still coming in.

On what would have been his 71st birthday, one visitor wrote, "May you always be soaring above the clouds!"

"You are most likely the one person's name that day that no one remembers, but you did your best," another wrote.

"When people think of 'the day the music died', they forget that you were flying the plane. Know that you are truly remembered, and I hope that you are flying with the angels!" added another in 2008.

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