A lot of people are afraid to fly in a plane, but in reality, the accident rate is lower than other forms of transportation, like driving a car.
Public perceptions around safety have been shaped by high-profile aviation accidents over the years. Some of these were many years ago, and aviation safety has improved dramatically. As performers travelling on tour fly far more than the general population, they are disproportionately likely to die in plane crashes. But the risk level overall remains low.
Nonetheless, such accidents capture the public’s imagination with a blend of fear and curiosity. Here’s stories of some famous people who have been involved in plane crashes.
Even today, Glen Miller’s music gets frequent airplay.
That is no small feat, given that it is almost 80 years since he went missing. The most popular big band leader of his day, Miller was a high-achieving musical star at a young age. Frequently performing for large audiences, he captured the upbeat spirit and can-do attitude of the Jazz Age.
During the World War II, Miller was entertaining American troops in Europe. The English Channel was a short hop by plane, but with enemy occupied territory visible from the English shoreline on a clear day, it was a dangerous one. Miller was flying to a concert for the troops when the plane he was in vanished without a trace over the Channel. His body was never recovered.
Another early achiever musically was Buddy Holly.
The rocker with his trademark glasses and toothy grin achieved huge fame. He recorded a score of memorable hit songs, even though he had time to cut only a few albums before his tragic death at age 22.
Holly was on tour with other musicians. Their demanding schedule meant that a small plane offered the quickest route between midwestern gigs. Taking off in bad weather late one night, the plane took off bound for Fargo, but the pilot’s decision to risk a flight in such weather cost all on board their lives.
Besides Holly, two other musicians from the tour died – Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, J. P. Richardson. Country legend Waylon Jennings had originally planned to be on the flight. That litany of talent cut short inspired Don McLean to write the song, “American Pie,” in which he refers to the crash as “the day the music died.”
Country singer John Denver was famous for his songs, including “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
What some fans may not have known is that Denver did not just sing about planes, he also flew them. A keen amateur pilot, he had well over 2,000 hours of flying experience logged. In 1997, he was out solo piloting his newly purchased experimental plane.
During the flight, a design flaw meant that fuel started to run out as Denver was unable to save himself by using what little was left. A subsequent investigation led to a change in the design of the fuel system on that type of plane. Sadly, that was too late for Denver, who crashed into an ocean.
John F. Kennedy, Jr.
A common theme amongst celebrity plane crashes is that they involve small aircraft, personal piloting, and poor weather.
All those things played a role in the crash that befell John F. Kennedy, Jr., as he flew himself, his wife, and sister-in-law to their weekend retreat in 1999. The new plane crashed into the sea, killing all three occupants associated with the former president of the United States.
The cause was something that sounds improbably, but is actually common in aviation accidents. Known as spatial disorientation, it basically means the pilot loses track of where the ground is and where the sky is, and ends up flying at an angle that results in losing control of the aircraft.
On a hazy night, such as the one in question, with the sea below lacking the visual cues more commonly found on land, Kennedy’s crash was a typical though tragic example of spatial disorientation.
Plane crashes do not always end in tragedy for all concerned.
In recent times, for example, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker was involved in a light aircraft crash. Taking off after midnight, the Learjet had splashy tires and struggled to get airborne. Crashing off the end of the runway, it burst into flames. Both pilots and two passengers died, but Barker escaped from the flaming wreckage. Badly burned by the accident, he was in the hospital for many months afterwards.
Aviation accidents are tragic, and it is reassuring to know that despite the headlines, they are becoming rarer. Partly, that is because of lessons learned from crashes and changes that have been incorporated to improve safety standards. As a tribute, why not look up the music or achievements of some of these lost stars to remind yourself of why their deaths had such an impact?