Roger Peterson’s Last Flight… 55 Years Ago

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Every pilot has a last flight. Some will know this is THE last flight before takeoff and others simply will not. Roger Peterson’s last flight was on February 3, 1959 and when he took off, he had no idea this was going to be his last flight. There was also one question that few people have ever asked; what happened to the airplane?

Roger was born on May 24, 1937 in Iowa. He earned his private license and later in April 1958 his commercial license. Soon after he got a job working as a pilot for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City Iowa. He never got an instrument rating failing the check ride twice, it was thought that he had a problem with vertigo which caused his failures. Back in those days you could have a commercial license without an instrument rating. Roger eventually totaled up 711 hours. He spent 128 hours of that time flying a Beechcraft Bonanza.

On February 3rd, 1959 his boss had him fly a charter to Fargo North Dakota. He took off in a 1947 Bonanza N3794N with 3 passengers leaving about 1:00 AM. Each passenger paid $36 for the flight (about $288 currently).

Flying conditions consisted of light snow with a 5000′ ceiling, 10 miles of visibility, and winds from 25 to 32 Knots. The Bonanza departed on Runway 17, climbed to about 2000′ MSL and crashed about 5 miles from the airport within 5 minutes of takeoff. Hubert Dwyer, the owner of the airplane found wreckage the following morning while flying the route looking for the missing Bonanza. The airplane impacted the ground with the right wing tip, nose low, at a high rate of speed. The aircraft was destroyed. The rate of climb indicator was stuck at 3000 ft/min descent and the airspeed needle was between 165-170 MPH. There were indications the engine was producing power on impact and the propeller was set at cruise. The directional gyro was caged.

Both front seatbelts and the center rear belt were torn from the airframe. The buckle of one of the rear belts was broken. The pilot was in the wreckage and the three passengers were thrown clear. All died of severe impact trauma.

 

The CAB went on to state…

Mr. Dwyer said that he had confidence in Peterson and relied entirely on his operational judgment with respect to the planning and conduct of the flight.

At Mason City, at the time of takeoff, the barometer was falling, the ceiling and visibility were lowering, light snow had begun to fall, and the surface winds and winds aloft were so high one could reasonably have expected to encounter adverse weather during the estimated two-hour flight.

It was already snowing at Minneapolis, and the general forecast for the area along the intended route indicated deteriorating weather conditions. Considering all of these facts and the fact that the company was certificated to fly in accordance with visual flight rules only, both day and night, together with the pilot’s unproved ability to fly by instrument, the decision to go seems most imprudent.

It is believe that shortly after takeoff pilot Peterson entered an area of complete darkness and one in which there was no definite horizon; that the snow conditions and the lack of horizon required him to rely solely on flight instruments for aircraft attitude and orientation.

The high gusty winds and the attendant turbulence which existed this night would have caused the rate of climb indicator and the turn and bank indicator to fluctuate to such an extent that an interpretation of these instruments so far as attitude control is concerned would have been difficult to a pilot as inexperienced as Peterson. The airspeed and altimeter alone would not have provided him with sufficient reference to maintain control of the pitch attitude. With his limited experience the pilot would tend to rely on the attitude gyro which is relatively stable under these conditions.

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 probably that the 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. 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. If the directional gyro were caged throughout the flight this could only have added to the pilot’s confusion.

Conclusion

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 predicated with virtual certainty.

 

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. The pitch display of this instrument is the reverse of the instrument he was accustomed to; therefore, he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn. The fact that the aircraft struck the ground in a steep turn but with the nose lowered only slightly, indicates that some control was being effected at the time. The weather briefing supplied to the pilot was seriously inadequate in that it failed to even mention adverse flying conditions which should have been highlighted.

The short version was that it was a rough bumpy night. Instrument needles were bouncing around, visibility was hampered by snow and disorienting, and there were no stars, as well as no lights on the ground. You couldn’t see the natural horizon. While conditions were legally VFR, they should have been handled as an IFR flight. Roger should have sat this one out and let someone else fly them. Still he went on and entered a classic graveyard spiral and to compound matters the directional gyro was probably caged (locked) for the entire flight, making it more difficult to recognize the rotation of the aircraft. He impacted the ground in spiral and at high speed.

Roger Peterson was buried at the Buena Vista Memorial Cemetery in Storm Lake Iowa on February 6th. As you’ve probably figured out the passengers were Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Their last show was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa, which has turned into a memorial and museum itself (as well as still operating as a restaurant theater).

I visited the crash site at the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Avenue 5 miles north of Clear Lake Iowa in September 2013. We drove a LOT of miles over unpaved roads to get there following the GPS coming in from the west. The easiest way to find it is with a Garmin GPS searching out the road intersections; come in from the East off of I35 getting off at Exit 197 or Exit 203. There are a big pair of Buddy Holley sunglasses at the intersection. Follow the barbed wire fence about 1/4 west through the field to the memorials. Don’t expect to be alone. During our stop, on a weekday morning, 5 cars stopped in the 30 minutes we were there. The memorials there were very nicely done. Fans left various mementos left on the site too.

You can find the story above on the internet in various forms. It’s been done before. What hasn’t been done before is below.

To me, the real question 55 years later is what ever happened to the wreckage of Beechcraft V-35 Bonanza N3794N S/N 1019? Just to set the record straight, the Bonanza was not named “Miss American Pie” or “American Pie”. That was a term created by Don McLean for his hit 1970s ballad “American Pie”.

As best I can determine the airframe was returned to the owner Hubert Dwyer after the CAB was done with it’s investigation. I’ve thought for many years that it was in the back of a hangar or warehouse somewhere in Iowa. It never showed up in public view after the crash that I could find.

So after some sporadic searching over several years I cheated and looked for the answer the easy way. I asked Jay Miller.

For those who don’t know Jay Miller, he’s the only real full time aviation historian I know of in the country. He’s an amazing photographer and has been shooting aircraft for well over 40 years. Jay’s regular commercial clients include Bell Helicopter, Airbus Helicopters, and even Boeing. Some photographers may work for companies like this once in a career. Jay does work for them on a regular basis. I’m sure you have an AeroFax book somewhere in your collection; he started the company. He has written 36 books, and countless articles. He’s directed aviation museums and collections including Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection. Jay amassed an aviation reference collection (since sold but he still has access to it) that is too large to even begin to explain here. Most importantly, he’s a Texan and Buddy Holly fan.

So I asked Jay. Jay said he did some research into the subject some years back. Apparently fans of the musicians were not too happy they died in a crash. It escalated to where Mr. Dwyer started getting death threats. Mr. Dwyer had a friend with a backhoe and some land. The Bonanza got buried. Where? Nobody is saying, not that I can find.

You can contact the author at TNMark1@GMail.Com. I would like to sincerely thank Jay Miller for assistance and for the use of his photographs in making this article possible.

https://www.resolutionrentals.com/


Mark Hrutkay

Mark has been a member of the International Association of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) for several years and attends all their events and seminars. He has won several awards for his work and has been published in several aviation magazines, domestic and foreign. You can contact Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.

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