Plane crashes have claimed a number of movie and music celebrities through the years. Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Will Rogers, Carole Lombard, Leslie Howard, Glenn Miller, Jim Reeves, Audie Murphy, Rick Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd head the tragic list.
It's not a pleasant subject, but airplane crashes have claimed the lives of a number of celebrities through the years. Movie and music personalities have been especially hard hit. Here are ten celebrity plane crashes that rocked the entertainment world.
Patsy Cline, March 5, 1963 - Tennessee Tragedy
Country music singer Patsy Cline (1932-1963) was returning home to Nashville following a benefit concert in Kansas City, Kansas, when her private plane went down in a storm near Camden, Tennessee, on March 5, 1963. Also on board the ill-fated single engine Piper Comanche were the 30-year-old Cline's manager and the plane's pilot Ramsey "Randy" Hughes (1928-1963), along with fellow Grand Ole Opry performers Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas (1913-1963) and Harold "Hawkshaw" Hawkins (1921-1963). Said Civil Defense official Dean Brewer later of the effort to recover the bodies in a heavily wooded area known as Fatty Bottom, "There's not enough to count...They're all in small pieces."
L-r: Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Randy Hughes (Nashville Banner, March 6, 1963)
Buddy Holly, February 3, 1959 - The Day the Music Died
Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holly (1936-1959) was on tour as a featured performer in the Winter Dance Party in early 1959. Following a performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, a private plane was chartered to take Holly and fellow musicians Ritchie Valens (1941-1959) and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (1930-1959) to their next stop on the tour. The single engine Beechcraft Bonanza, piloted by 21-year-old Roger Peterson, crashed in a farmer's field shortly after takeoff on February 3, 1959, killing all on board. The bodies of Holly and Valens rested near the mangled airplane, while Richardson was hurled over a fence and Peterson remained trapped inside. Singer Don McLean later immortalized the tragedy in his 1971 ballad "American Pie," which he called "the day the music died."
Will Rogers, August 15, 1935 - The Humorist Goes Silent
Actor, humorist and social commentator Will Rogers (1879-1935) and famed aviator Wiley Post (1898-1935) died instantly when their hybrid Lockheed Orion-Explorer crashed shortly after takeoff near Point Barrow, Alaska, on August 15, 1935. Post had been interested in surveying a mail and air passenger route from the American West Coast to Russia, with his friend Rogers tailing along in order to gather new material for his newspaper columns. While headed to Point Barrow Post had become lost in bad weather, setting down his pontoon-equipped experimental aircraft in a lagoon in order to ask directions. In the air once again the fuel-starved engine apparently quit, putting the plane into a stall where it plunged nose first into the water.
Will Rogers (1879-1935)
Carole Lombard, January 16, 1942 - Mrs. Clark Gable's Final War Bond Tour
Hollywood actress Carole Lombard (1908-1942), her mother Elizabeth Knight Peters (1877-1942), MGM press agent Otto Winkler (1903-1942) and 19 others died when their Trans Continental & Western DC-3 crashed into Table Rock Mountain near Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 16, 1942. Lombard, married to actor Clark Gable since 1939, had been returning to Los Angeles following a successful war bond tour in the Midwest. The crash site proved to be especially gruesome, with MGM executive Eddie Mannix, who later visited the scene, recalling that Lombard's body was headless and burned very badly. Lombard's final film, the comedy-drama To Be or Not to Be, was later released on March 6, 1942. One of Lombard's lines in the film, a casually spoken "What can happen on a plane?," was understandably cut by producers.
Carole Lombard (1908-1942)
Leslie Howard, June 1, 1943 - Gone with the Luftwaffe
British actor Leslie Howard (1893-1943), along with 16 other passengers and crew, were on board KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777 when it was attacked and shot down by eight German Luftwaffe Ju-88s on June 1, 1943. Everyone aboard the Douglas DC-3, bound from Portugal to England, perished in the subsequent crash into the Bay of Biscay. One theory speculates that the Nazis attacked the unarmed civilian airliner in order to silence the popular, outspoken Howard. Other conjectures that the entire incident was merely an error, with the Germans mistaking the DC-3 for a military transport plane. Yet another theory opines that Howard was on a top-secret mission to Spain at the behest of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in order to dissuade Spanish dictator Francesco Franco from joining the Axis. Leslie Howard is perhaps best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Leslie Howard (1893-1943)
Glenn Miller, December 15, 1944 - Last Moonlight Serenade Over the English Channel
Major Alton Glenn Miller (1904-1944), along with Flight Officer John R.S. Morgan and Lt. Colonel Norman F. Braessell, disappeared over the English Channel in their single engine Noorduyn Norseman C-64 on December 15, 1944. Miller, America’s foremost bandleader and an officer in the United States Army Air Forces, had been headed to Paris in order to make final arrangements for a Christmas concert for the troops. One wild theory speculates that Miller had died the night before during a brawl at a French brothel, with military authorities using the plane crash as a cover-up for his death. A more credible theory postulates that Miller’s plane, plagued by bad weather, had wandered into a jettison zone where returning bombers dumped their payloads before landing. That day 138 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers were returning home from an aborted mission to Germany. After jettisoning their incendiaries, navigator Fred Shaw witnessed what he believed was Miller’s plane, which went into an incipient spin and disappeared into the water.
Glenn Miller (1904-1944)
Jim Reeves, July 31, 1964 - Gentleman Jim’s Final Flight
Jim Reeves (1923-1964) and manager/pianist Dean Manuel were killed in their single engine Beechcraft Debonair while returning home from a business trip on July 31, 1964. With Reeves at the controls, the private aircraft was hit by a violent thunderstorm over Brentwood, Tennessee, where it disappeared from radar at 5:00 PM CDT. Some 42 hours later the wreckage was located in a wooded area southwest of Nashville International Airport, with the plane’s engine and nose buried in the ground and the deceased still inside. Reeves’ final recording session for RCA had included the songs “Make the World Go Away,” “Missing You” and “Is It Really Over?”
Audie Murphy, May 28, 1971 - A War Hero Meets His End
Film and television actor Audie Murphy (1924-1971), America’s most decorated soldier of World War II, perished along with six others when their Aero Commander, hampered by dense fog, crashed into Brushy Mountain near Roanoke, Virginia, on May 28, 1971. Murphy’s body was recovered two days later on Memorial Day. The actor and war hero was later buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Audie Murphy’s movie credits included The Red Badge of Courage (1951), To Hell and Back (1955) and No Name on the Bullet (1959). His final film was A Time for Dying (1969), in which he played outlaw Jesse James.
Audie Murphy (1924-1971)
Rick Nelson, December 31, 1985 - The Travelin’ Man’s Final Journey
Actor and musician Rick Nelson (1940-1985), his fiancée Helen Blair, soundman Clark Russell and Stone Canyon band members Andy Chapin, Rick Intveld, Bobby Neal and Patrick Woodward were killed when their DC-3 crashed in a field in De Kalb, Texas, on New Year’s Eve 1985. A faulty cabin heater had ignited and filled the plane with smoke, necessitating an emergency crash-landing in which both pilots survived. Ricky Nelson had rocketed to stardom on his parents’ iconic television show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66). He later became one of music’s top teen idols, scoring such hits as “Stood Up” (1957), “Poor Little Fool” (1958) and “Travelin’ Man” (1960).
Lynyrd Skynyrd, October 20, 1977 - Free Bird Flies South
The Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s chartered Convair CV-240 crashed in a forest for lack of fuel near Gillsburg, Mississippi, on October 20, 1977. Killed on impact were lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (1948-1977), guitarist/singer Steve Gaines (1949-1977), backup singer Cassie Gaines (1948-77), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray. Other band members and crew suffered horrible injuries, including bassist Leon Wilkeson who sustained severe internal damage and the loss of most of his teeth. Not on the plane that day was JoJo Billingsley of the Honkettes, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s female backup singers, who was ill at home and planning to join the tour in three days. Billingsley later claimed that she had dreamed of the crash and had phoned band member Allen Collins, begging him not to use the Convair for the trip.
Ten More Tragic Movie and Music Celebrity Plane Crashes
- Singer Jim Croce (1943-1973), in a single engine Beechraft E18S in Natchitoches, Louisiana, on September 20, 1973
- Actress/singer Grace Moore (1898-1947), in a KLM C-47 in Copenhagen, Denmark, on January 26, 1947
- Singer Buddy Clark (1911-1949), in a twin engine Cessna T-50 in Los Angeles, California, on October 1, 1949
- Singer John Denver (1943-1997), in an experimental Rutan Long EZ in Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California, on October 12, 1997
- Singer/actress Aaliyah Houghton (1979-2001), in a Cessna 402B in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, on August 25, 2001
- Movie producer Mike Todd (1909-1958), in a Lockheed Loadstar in Grants, New Mexico, on March 22, 1958
- Movie stunt flyer Paul Mantz (1903-1965), in an experimental Phoenix P-1 while filming The Flight of the Phoenix in Buttercup Valley, California, on July 8, 1965
- Actress June Thorburn (1931-1967), in an Iberia Airlines Caravelle 10R in Fernhurst, England, on November 4, 1967
- Singer Otis Redding (1941-1967), in a Beechcraft H18 near Madison, Wisconsin, on December 10, 1967
- Movie and television producer/writer/director Bruce Geller (1930-1978), creator of TV’s Mission: Impossible (1966-73), in a Cessna 337D Skymaster in Buena Vista Canyon near Santa Barbara, California, on May 21, 1978
Grace Moore (1898-1947)