WHEN THE MUSIC DIES
Flying|January - February 2021
VFR FLIGHT INTO IMC
ROB MARK

Three men chartered a Beechcraft Bonanza for a late-night flight between Mason City (KMCW), Iowa, and Fargo (KFAR), North Dakota, about 200 nautical miles. The 21-year-old charter pilot’s initial review of the forecast that chilly February evening called for VFR weather with bases along the route at 5,000 feet and visibility of 10 miles. The only possible snafu was near Fargo, where a chance of snow showers existed around their original arrival time of 1 a.m., with a cold-front passage due a few hours later.

Just before their original departure time from KMCW, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board report, the pilot checked the weather and learned the ceilings had dropped to 4,200 feet en route, but visibilities were still good. Light snow was reported in Minneapolis, however, some 100 nm southeast of Fargo. The weather briefer also told the pilot that the cold front was moving faster than expected and would pass through Fargo about 2 a.m. local time.

As often happens, the passengers arrived at the Mason City airport late. To save time, the pilot decided to file his VFR flight plan once he was airborne. As the Bonanza departed, just before 1 a.m., the Mason City weather had deteriorated to an obscured ceiling at 3,000 feet and a visibility of 6 miles in light snow. Winds from the south had picked up to 20 knots, with gusts to 30 knots. The VFR-rated pilot pressed on despite the route taking them over sparsely populated terrain at night, which, combined with snow showers, would offer the pilot little or no visible horizon. (Note: At the time of this accident many years ago, charter pilots were allowed to fly single-engine aircraft at night without holding an instrument rating, a rule that has since changed.)

Shortly after departure, the pilot turned northwest and climbed to about 800 feet. The owner of the charter company said that he could clearly see the aircraft’s white recognition light as the aircraft flew away. He later estimated that the Bonanza was about 5 miles from the airport when he observed the taillight descending until it disappeared. The pilot made no radio calls after takeoff.

Following an intensive ground search, the wreckage was located the next morning covered in 4 inches of snow. The pilot, Roger Petersen, was killed, along with his three passengers, Charles Hardin, J.P. Richardson and Richard Valenzuela—all of whom had been thrown clear of the aircraft. The investigation indicated some of the passengers might not have been wearing a seat belt. The passengers, all veteran entertainers, were better known by their professional names: young recording artist Buddy Holly, a musician known as the Big Bopper, and singer and guitarist Ritchie Valens. Their deaths that night later became the subject of Don McLean’s 1971 hit single, “American Pie.” Their tragic flight also became one of best-known examples of a pilot pressing on into weather when he should have turned around—or never departed in the first place.

The CAB said that Roger Petersen held a commercial pilot certificate and had logged 711 hours prior to the accident. Though he was training for the rating, Petersen had failed his instrument check ride nine months prior to the accident and had not tried to retake the test. The CAB learned that the majority of Petersen’s instrument training was taken in aircraft using what was then known as a conventional attitude indicator with a “T-type” symbol representing the airplane. The accident aircraft used a Sperry attitude gyro that offered the pilot a significantly different attitude presentation. Investigators found the Bonanza’s vertical speed indicator stuck at a 3,000 fpm descent while the attitude indicator was jammed in a 90-degree descending right turn. The airplane’s autopilot was inoperative. A tear-down of the Bonanza’s engine uncovered no powerplant issues.

The CAB report (2-0001) identified the cause of the accident as the pilot’s “unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certified or qualified. Contributing factors included serious deficiencies in the weather briefings he received and the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the instrument that determines the attitude of the aircraft.” Today, the National Transportation Safety Board would call this accident “continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions.”

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