The Night the Music Died

February 1, 1993

The prairie is a hostile place in winter, lonesome and dark. As the last light of day faded, 21-year-old Roger Peterson knew he was facing a long night. He did not expect his charter passengers to arrive from nearby Clear Lake, Iowa, for their two-hour flight until midnight or later. Around 5:30 p.m., he received an in-person weather briefing and was told that VFR conditions prevailed over his planned route from Mason City, Iowa, to Fargo, North Dakota. Ceilings were at least 5,000 feet, with visibilities of 10 miles or more. Light snow showers were a possibility after 2 a.m. in Fargo, where a cold front was expected to pass around 4 a.m. Winds aloft below 10,000 feet were running from the southwest at 30 to 50 knots, with the strongest winds near the approaching front. The night of February 2, 1959, promised to be dark, cold, and windy. It would be a rough ride.

On-demand air taxi, as we call it today, was quite different in 1959. Little was required of the pilot beyond a commercial certificate. Little was required of the operator beyond an operating certificate. The accident that would occur this night, however, would change all that. This accident was the initial catalyst for the much more stringent certification and operational requirements under which we conduct charters and other air taxi operations today.

The Beech 35 Bonanza that Peterson would be flying, N3794N, had been delivered on October 17, 1947 (serial number 1019), and had accumulated 2,154 hours since new. The Continental E-185 engine had 40 hours since overhaul. The airplane was equipped with high- and low- frequency radio transceivers, a Narco Omnigator, a Lear autopilot (which had been recently installed and was not operable), and a full complement of IFR instrumentation.

A new terminal forecast for Fargo was to be issued at 11 p.m., and Peterson telephoned for a weather update at 10 and again at 11:20. During the latter call, he learned that ceilings along the route were holding at 4,200 feet or better. Visibilities were still above 10 miles, but light snow was now falling at Minneapolis, east of his route. Frontal passage was now expected at Fargo around 2 a.m. Mason City was reporting a measured ceiling of 6,000 overcast, with more than 15 miles visibility. The 25- to 32-knot winds out of the south, combined with the 15-degree temperature, were bone-chilling. The altimeter was 29.96 inches and falling.

Peterson was regarded by his friends and associates as a responsible young married man who had built his life around flying. He had logged 711 hours total time and had worked for Dwyer Flying Service for a year, instructing and flying charters. He had 128 hours in Bonanzas, almost all acquired during charter flights. He had passed his instrument written examination and accumulated 52 hours of instrument flight instruction, but he had failed an instrument flight check in March 1958. Still, Hubert Dwyer, the local fixed-base operator and owner of the Bonanza, had confidence in Peterson's judgment and his ability to safely conduct the flight.

Dwyer accompanied Peterson to the weather office at 11:55 p.m. for another briefing. The enroute weather was materially unchanged, but Mason City's ceiling was now 5,000 feet, and the altimeter had dropped to 29.90. Light snow had begun to fall.

Dwyer Flying Service, in business since 1953, held an air carrier operating certificate with an air taxi rating issued by the Federal Aviation Agency. The certificate permitted the carrying of passengers for hire within the continental limits of the United States in accordance with visual flight rules, both day and night.

Peterson's passengers — Charles Hardin, J. P. Richardson, and Richard Valenzuela — arrived at the airport around 12:40 a.m. Their baggage was loaded, and they boarded the airplane. Peterson told Dwyer he would file his flight plan when airborne. Taxiing out, Peterson asked once again for weather information. Enroute conditions were the same, but at Mason City, the ceiling was now 3,000 feet, and the sky was obscured. Visibility was 6 miles. The wind was out of the south at 20, gusting to 30, and the altimeter had dropped to 29.85. Light snow continued to fall.

Dwyer watched from a platform outside the tower as the Bonanza took off at 12:55. Peterson made a climbing left turn, leveled off at an altitude of about 800 feet, and took up a northwesterly heading. When the airplane was about 5 miles from the airport, Dwyer watched the tail light gradually descend until it faded away, out of sight. When Peterson did not radio in to file his flight plan, Dwyer requested that the air traffic communications station attempt to raise him. Repeated calls went unanswered.

Later, an important fact would emerge. According to the Civil Aeronautics Board accident report: "A flash advisory issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau at Minneapolis at 2335 on February 2 contained the following information: 'Flash Advisory No. 5. A band of snow about 100 miles wide at 2335 from extreme northwestern Minnesota, northern North Dakota through Bismarck and south-southwestward through Black Hills of South Dakota with visibility generally below 2 miles in snow. This area or band moving southeastward about 25 knots. Cold front at 2335 from vicinity Winnipeg through Minot, Williston, moving southeastward 25 to 30 knots with surface winds following front north-northwest 25 gusts 45. Valid until 0335.'

"Another advisory issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau at Kansas City, Missouri, at 0015 on February 3, was: 'Flash Advisory No. 1. Over eastern half Kansas ceilings are locally below one thousand feet, visibilities locally 2 miles or less in freezing drizzle, light snow, and fog. Moderate to locally heavy icing [in] areas of freezing drizzle and locally moderate icing in clouds below 10,000 feet over eastern portion Nebraska, Kansas, northwest Missouri, and most of Iowa. Valid until 0515.'"

Neither of the weather briefers Peterson had talked to would recall having told him about these advisories. Dwyer would confirm that, during the briefing he attended, no mention was made of instrument conditions along the route. Lacking this information, Peterson may have seriously underestimated the severity of the weather he could encounter. Nevertheless, at the time of takeoff, the barometer was falling, ceiling and visibility were dropping, snow was falling, and the winds both on the surface and aloft were so high that "one could reasonably have expected to encounter adverse weather," as the CAB opined. "Considering all of these facts, ...the decision to go seems most imprudent."

The wreckage of the Bonanza was discovered in an open farm field covered with 4 inches of snow 5 miles northwest of the Mason City airport around 9:35 on the morning of February 3. The main portion of the wreckage had come to rest against a barbed wire fence. The passengers, who had been thrown clear of the cabin, and the pilot, who was found in the cockpit, were dead. The two front-seat safety belts and the middle one of the rear seat had torn free from their attach points. The two rear outside belt ends remained attached to their fittings, but the buckle of one was broken.

Examination of the debris, scattered over a distance of 540 feet, indicated that the right wing tip of the airplane had struck the ground first. The Bonanza had been in a steep right bank and a slightly nose-low attitude on a heading of 315 degrees at impact. The vertical speed indicator needle was jammed, indicating a 3,000-fpm descent. The airspeed indicator needle was stuck between 165 and 170 mph. The tachometer needle was jammed at 2,200 rpm. Fuel pressure, oil temperature, and oil pressure gauges were jammed in the normal or green range. The directional gyro was found caged, and it is possible that it was never used during the short flight; however, this evidence is not conclusive. Investigators found no indication of in-flight structural or control failure. The engine was producing power, the landing gear was retracted, and the propeller was in its cruise setting at impact. No fire occurred.

We may concur with the CAB that "at night, with an overcast sky, snow falling, no definite horizon, and a proposed flight over a sparsely settled area with an absence of ground lights, a requirement for control of the aircraft solely by reference to flight instruments can be predicted with virtual certainty." But there was more.

"The Board concludes that Pilot Peterson, when a short distance from the airport, was confronted with this situation. Because of fluctuation of the rate instruments caused by gusty winds, he would have been forced to concentrate and rely greatly on the attitude gyro, an instrument with which he was not completely familiar."

And this may be the final element that helped stack the deck against this flight. The Bonanza was equipped with a Sperry F3 attitude gyro in place of a conventional artificial horizon.

The CAB noted, "Service experience with the use of the attitude gyro has clearly indicated confusion among pilots during the transition period or when alternating between conventional and attitude gyros. Since Peterson had received his instrument training in aircraft equipped with the conventional type artificial horizon, and since this instrument and the attitude gyro are opposite in their pictorial display of the pitch attitude, it is probable that reverse sensing would at times produce reverse control action. This is especially true of instrument flight conditions requiring a high degree of concentration or requiring multiple function, as would be the case when flying instrument conditions in turbulence without a copilot.... If the directional gyro were caged throughout the flight this could only have added to the pilot's confusion."

The CAB determined that the probable cause of this accident was "the pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by reference to instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so. Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot's unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the attitude of the aircraft."

To its final report, the board appended "A Safety Message for Pilots," which highlighted the importance of thorough training and demonstrated proficiency in the use of various types of attitude instruments in particular and aircraft systems in general. It concluded, "Know your aircraft equipment, its capabilities and limitations. Do not rely upon any equipment under circumstances requiring its use for the safe conduct of the flight until you have acquired sufficient experience under simulated conditions to insure your ability to use it properly."

Had the Bonanza arrived safely in Fargo, its passengers would have made their next night's appointment in Moorhead, Minnesota. But the brief, meteoric careers of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens ended in the cold and darkness of the windswept Iowa prairie. As did that of another young man, who has all but faded from memory — Roger Arthur Peterson.