Fate and Mystery

As I have mentioned from time to time, I am fascinated by history. Not only how the past made us as we are, but how many seemingly small and inconsequential events can have profound consequences.

I am currently reading a book by a favorite author, Erik Larson, on Winston Churchill during the time of the Blitz.

It’s his contention that a German navigator’s error, in mistakenly jettisoning their bombs over London rather than a country field during inclement weather, led to Hiroshima.

Personally I think that may be a bridge too far, for reasons that I outlined here.

But what inspired this post was a small article in a British history magazine. Besides in the issue telling us how Egyptian priests mummified bodies 5,000 years ago, there was a reprint of the headline in Iowa of the aircraft accident that killed 50s rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Vallens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. This magazine covers all history.

But far from the music dying that day, as singer-songwriter Don McLean claimed years later (and I remember, as a student in Virginia, the “controversary” that song engendered – i.e., the nation wondered, “what the @#$% is he singing about?” – it was a few years before it became evident that it was about a cold February evening at an Iowa Ballroom, with 100s of teenagers dancing to some bands who would become rock and roll legends, only to learn next morning that they were……gone.

Here’s a couple of my favorite songs – downloaded from Amazon in my playlist from Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

Can’t leave the Big Bopper out, although I have none of his songs.

Still rockin’ 61 years later.

I knew that Holly was a rock superstar, even in the 3rd grade in Los Angeles. Didn’t know that a young Mick Jagger saw him at his London show, or that the Beatles named their group…the Beatles – influenced by Holly’s group The Crickets.

They died in a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza just 5 miles from the airport at about 0100 the next morning.

As is my nature, I wanted to find out a bit more about this.

For one, the plane would have carried Holly and 2 members of his band, but for those 2 members giving up their seats to Valens and Richardson. One of them gave it up on a coin toss. Heads or tails, live or die?

The other Holly member who gave up his seat was Waylon Jennings, who became a country-western superstar. Holly gave him his start as a bassist in his band. And his turn of fate – with survivor’s guilt – haunted him for the rest of his life.

And that reminded me of another famous coin toss from Hollywood legend Carole Lombard, who was on tour during WW2 selling war bonds.

Tired and eager to return to the family ranch in Southern California after the last rally in Indianapolis, she challenged her mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Peters, and Gable’s friend and press agent, Otto Winkler, to flip a coin to determine their mode of transportation. If she won, they would fly out on the next available westbound flight; if her mother, who had never flown, or Winkler, who was prone to air sickness, won, they would climb aboard the next train.

For a while, it appears Lombard’s luck was running hot.

After winning the coin toss, she found that cancellations had opened three seats on TWA Flight 3, so they arrived at Indianapolis Municipal Airport the morning of Jan. 16 to catch a flight that had originated in New York and was ultimately bound for Burbank, California.

Her DC-3 crashed January 16, 1942 into Mt Potosi, just outside Las Vegas.

Husband Clark Gable was grief-stricken. While nobody can prove this contention, it is my belief that he volunteered as a B-17 door gunner to end his misery. One had a 30% of dying before your required missions over Nazi-held Europe were finished.

Of all of the classic Hollywood stars, it is Carole Lombard I’d like to have met. Carole was a regular visitor at Mr Hearst’s “Ranch House”, and a terror at the billiard table, so I heard. She was, to me, a character in the best sense of the word.

The other mystery to me is why that Beech Bonanza pilot took off under those conditions…at night. The pilot, Roger Peterson, wasn’t instrument qualified. It was determined by the NTSB’s predecessor that weather was a factor.

A Beach (sic-ed)Bonanza, N 3794N, crashed at night approximately 5 miles northwest of the Mason City Municipal Airport, Mason City, Iowa, at approximately 0100, February 3, 1959. The pilot and three passengers were killed and the aircraft was demolished.

The aircraft was observed to take off toward the south in a normal manner, turn and and climb to an estimated altitude of 800 feet, and then head in a north-westerly direction. when approximately 5 miles had been traversed, the tail light at the aircraft was seen to descend gradually until it disappeared from sight. Following this, many unsuccessful attempts were made to contact the aircraft by radio. The wreckage was found in a field later that morning.

This accident, like so many before it, was caused by the pilot’s decision to undertake a night in which the likelihood of encountering instrument conditions existed, in the mistaken belief that he could cope with en route instrument weather conditions, without having the necessary familiarization with the instruments in the aircraft and without being properly certificated to fly solely by instruments.

Why would a pilot without the qualifications knowingly fly into conditions that required training and knowledge that he didn’t possess?

It’s what also killed John Kennedy’s son and his wife.

Is it being oblivious to the potential danger or over confident?

Inclement weather kills a lot of general aviation pilots. Pilots being in a condition for which they have no rating or training (IFR), or being in a condition for which loss of control is inevitable (again, weather). And as an instructor told me years ago, an instrument rating isn’t so much about weather as (lack of) visibility. It isn’t going to be much help if you find yourself in a thunderstorm updraft. Or icing conditions with no deicing equipment.

No visibility at night in the pitch black with snow and ice on the wings is no place to be.

While one pilot was trying to get the NTSB to reopen this investigation, citing a loss of control of the rudder, some of us today in the F/B group were wondering if the problem wasn’t really weight and balance (another popular cause for accidents). One can imagine them all piling in with their luggage. The fact that the plane crashed just 5 miles from its departure airport lends some credence to this theory.

If true, that would also be a lapse in judgement on the pilot’s part.

The 21 year old pilot was, as Lex would say, “unavailable for comment“.

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Filed under Flying, History, Hollywood

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