A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

March 2010

The Day the Music Died

               Anyone who lived through the 1970’s and 80’s knows the name John Denver.  One of the most popular singers, song writers, musicians and actors of those times, Denver recorded over three hundred songs, and entertained in his concerts all over the world.  He performed with opera singers, country and western stars, even for children as a long-time guest on the Muppets television series.  It would be difficult to find anyone over 30 who has not heard of him.

          John Denver was also a pilot.  With close to 3,000 flying hours in his log book, he had a private license, endorsed for multi-engines and IFR, gliders and even a Lear Jet rating.  Sadly, it was an airplane that killed him.  Media reports of the day were, as usual, full of inconsistencies, half truths, and basically uneducated conclusions, written by people who knew absolutely nothing about aviation.  Much of what was reported at the time drew a black cloud over his career and reputation.

          At 53 years old, Denver had recently purchased a Rutan-designed Long EZ aircraft for his personal flying.  The plane had been around for a few years, owned by two other pilots.  As with most homebuilts and experimental airplanes, this Long EZ had a few, seemingly minor variations from the original plans.  One of them was the relocation of the fuel shut-off and tank selector valve.  The builder had chosen to move it from in front of the pilot to a spot behind his left shoulder.  The modification was done with the good intention of keeping all fuel lines out of the cockpit.  However, it required the pilot to be somewhat of a contortionist to reach it.  To change tanks or shut off the fuel required him to let go of the right side-mounted stick, then twist his body to reach back with the right arm over the left shoulder.    Further, on this particular application, the valve was not oriented toward the tank it was drawing fuel from. 

            It’s easy to see how a problem could develop with a system like this.  There were many strikes against Denver as the new owner of the aircraft.  His time on-type was reportedly under one hour.  Although he had plenty of time in his own log book, and was checked out with a pilot experienced on the Long EZ, he still needed to locate the valve and get into a twisted, unfamiliar position  in order to select the right tank at a critical moment in flight.   That moment came at a very low altitude over the water south of San Francisco.  With a questionable quantity of fuel on board, Denver had departed from his local airport for circuits.  Things were going well, so he decided to take a short, local flight along the coast.  That’s when the selected tank ran dry.  The procedure which had been used by previous owners, was to engage the auto pilot first, so that he could release the stick and free up the right hand to switch tanks.  Then he was required to feel around to find the valve over his shoulder, and switch it to the full tank.  Keep in mind, the valve was not labeled, it had an odd orientation, and was situated behind the pilot.  Denver had never performed the whole procedure in a critical situation.

             Inevitably, control was lost, aided by the natural tendency of the pilot to press down with the right leg on the rudder as he twists to his left.  Witnesses to the crash stated the aircraft struck the water in a nose-down attitude from a fairly low altitude. 

             The facts stated in the investigation all point to the mechanical reasons associated with the position and function of the valve and fuel quantities remaining in the tanks.  No drugs or alcohol were found in Denver’s blood.  

              It was a sad day for aviation, and worse for John Denver fans.  He had his troubles with alcohol-related driving infractions, but was reportedly a careful and well qualified pilot with no incidents or accidents on the record.  As any new owner of an airplane would do, he was practicing and familiarizing himself with its performance.  But with so little time built up flying that particular plane, it was at best, unfamiliar to him.  The Long EZ is not as forgiving as a Cessna 150.  It would require a fair bit of experience, and certainly full attention and preparedness on the part of a pilot.  The learning curve was a bit too steep for Denver. 

               And so on that October afternoon in 1997, the world lost not just another pilot, but a humanitarian, a singer, performer and actor.  His character reflected the conscience of a concerned citizen, a man working for the improvement in the life of all peoples, socially, environmentally and politically.  He joined the ranks of other singer/musicians, Ricky Nelson, Otis Redding, Patsy Cline, Jim Croce, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly, to name just a few who lost their lives in aviation accidents. 

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