Top 10 Famous People Who Died In An Airplane Crash

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Though travel by air remains, statistically, the safest mode of transportation, that’s not to say it hasn’t proven to be a deadly form of travel from time to time. Normally we just note such tragedies and move on but, when the victim is a well-known politician, entertainer, or sports figure, we tend to take notice, thereby bestowing upon the victim a special aura reserved for only a few.

So who are the ten best known individuals to lose their life in an airplane crash? Here are my nominees for the dubious honor:

10. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson (February 3, 1959)

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This  trio of singers, who were on the threshold of becoming megastars at the time of their death, were on a promotion tour through the American Midwest during the late winter of 1959, when they decided to forgo enduring another long night on their often broken-down tour bus, and instead take a small plane to their next gig in Moorhead City, Minnesota. Taking off from the Clearwater, Iowa airport shortly before 1 AM, the tiny four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza 35 flew straight into the teeth of a worsening snow shower, inducing its 21-year-old pilot to turn back. Unfortunately, the man lost his bearings during the process, and flew the plane into the ground some six miles northwest of the field, killing all four men instantly, and depriving the world of three of its most promising up-and-coming musicians.

Sidenote: country music legend Waylon Jennings was originally going to be on the plane, but gave up his seat to the ailing Richardson—a decision which was to haunt him the rest of his life.

9. Knute Rockne (March 31, 1931)

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Perhaps no man did more to revolutionize the game of football than Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne, nor has there been a coach since that could come close to matching his extraordinary 105-13-5 record over the 13 years he was coach of the “Fighting Irish.” That’s why his death on a flight from Kansas City to Wichita was such a shock to the nation, and a blow to the sports world. One of five passengers on a Fokker D.5 Trimotor — a rickety early commercial airliner — it was determined that the glue holding the struts to the right wing came apart, causing the entire wing to break off and the plane to plummet several thousand feet to the ground, killing all eight onboard.

Happening as it did during the height of the Great Depression, his death merely added to the general malaise evident in the country, and robbed football of one of its most innovative thinkers. One can only imagine where he might have taken the game had he lived.

8. Will Rogers and Wiley Post (August 15, 1935)

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Few men were more admired and loved than the endearing humorist and actor Will Rogers. He almost single-handedly managed to lighten the nation’s mood during the Great Depression, through his folksy humor and witty observations. Best known for the statement that he “never met a man he didn’t like,” Rogers was flying with friend, and legendary pilot, Wiley Post on a tour of Alaska, when the Lockheed Orion Explorer sea plane they were flying in caught a float while trying to take off in the fog near Point Barrow. It crashed in shallow water, killing both men instantly.

7. Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, & Cowboy Copas (March 5, 1963)

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Just as the Holly/Valen/Bopper crash four years earlier took the lives of three of the biggest names in rock n’ roll, this crash claimed the lives of three of country music’s biggest names, including one of the most popular singers at the time, Patsy Cline. Flying out of Dyersburg Municipal Airport in Dyersville, Tennessee, the Piper Comanche she, Hawkins and Copas were flying in hit bad weather shortly after takeoff, and crashed into a forested mountainside 90 miles east of Nashville, killing everyone on board.

Interestingly, in the months preceding the crash, Cline had confided to friends that she had a premonition that tragedy was on the horizon for her, and even went so far as to give away personal effects, and hastily write out a will on airline stationary while flying between engagements. She proved to be as good a prophet as she was a songstress, it appears.

6. Audie Murphy (May 28, 1971)

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This highly decorated World War II hero-turned-actor, best remembered for the many Westerns he starred in, died when the twin-engined Aero Commander 680 in which he was a passenger, crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia. The pilot apparently lost his bearings in a rain storm, and flew the plane into the ground, killing all four on board.  What was surprising about this crash was that the pilot was a veteran with over 8,000 hours of flying time to his credit; unfortunately, he never bothered to obtain his instrument rating so, when he flew into a rain storm with zero visibility, he promptly flew it right into the mountainside.

Murphy, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who fought drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions all his life, was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

5. Glenn Miller (December 15, 1944)

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The famed Big Band leader, known for such classic hits as In the Mood and Sentimental Journey, got into a small army utility plane near London, intending to fly to Paris to meet up with the rest of his orchestra, and simply disappeared. What might’ve happened remains unknown, though many believe that his plane was hit by bombs, jettisoned by RAF bombers returning from a failed mission over the English Channel. One of these bombs may have struck the plane and sent it into the water, though this has never been confirmed. In any case, the man and the plane are missing to this day, and remain one of the great mysteries in aviation history.

4. John F. Kennedy Jr. (July 16, 1999)

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The handsome son of the late President was piloting his Piper Saratoga II from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard, when his aircraft went out of control and spiraled into the Atlantic Ocean a few miles from the Vineyard, killing him, his wife, and his sister-in-law instantly. Apparently, Kennedy, who was not instrument-rated, got confused flying over the ocean at night, and simply piloted the plane into the water — a common hazard of flying over water at night when visual references can be practically non-existent.

In a curious sidenote, his aunt Kathleen also died in a plane crash in 1948, while another uncle, Joseph Kennedy Jr., was killed in a bomber over France in World War II, making it appear that the Kennedys have something of an aviation curse about them. Even Ted Kennedy was almost nailed by the curse, when a light plane he was a passenger in crashed near Southampton, Massachusetts in June of 1964, leaving him badly injured.

3. John Denver (October 27, 1997)

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This folksy singer, best known for his musical tributes to nature and environmental activism, died when he crashed his recently-purchased, home-built ultra-light aircraft, into Monterey Bay, California. Denver had over 2,700 hours of flying experience, and was certified in gliders and many different types of aircraft. However, it appears he had only recently purchased the small aircraft, and was still familiarizing himself with it when he lost control while trying to change fuel tanks, which could only be accessed by a valve awkwardly located behind his left shoulder. Had he a few hundred more feet in altitude when he tried it, he probably would still be regaling us with songs about forests and nature today.

2. Carole Lombard (January 16, 1942)

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This popular Hollywood actress, best known for her roles in a number of screwball comedies of the ’30s was, at the time of her death, one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, and was married to handsome leading man Clark Gable to boot. In fact, her future seemed even brighter, until she decided to do her part in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and set off on a bond tour to raise money for the war effort. Taking off from Las Vegas enroute to Los Angeles, the TWA DC-3 she was riding in crashed just twenty minutes later, when it flew into a mountain southwest of the city. The crash killed Lombard, her mother, and all 22 people on board.

Lombard’s husband, Clark Gable, was so distraught over her death that he, like many Hollywood stars at the time, joined the Army Air Corp, and spent the rest of the war making training films for bomber crews.

1. Rocky Marciano (August 31, 1969)

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No heavyweight boxer in history has done what Rocco Francis Marchegiano (Rocky Marciano) managed to do over the course of his career: go undefeated in 49 straight fights —43 of them by knockout! On the eve of his 46th birthday, Marciano was on his way to a friend’s home, where a surprise birthday party was waiting for him, when the small plane hit bad weather outside of Des Moines, Iowa. In the darkness, the pilot, who was not instrument-rated, tried to set the plane down at a small airfield outside Newton, Iowa, but hit a tree two miles short of the runway. The crash killed everyone onboard, and ended the life of one of boxing’s most legendary figures.

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Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at Our Curious World.


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28 Comments

  1. I would add Keith Green (popular Christian musician whose hymns are still popular 30 years after his death). I’d also add Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he died in a helicopter crash, not a plane crash.

  2. I’d add Lynyrd Skynyrd members Ronnie Van Zant and Steve and Cassie Gaines to this list.

    Creators of songs such as Free Bird, Sweet Home Alabama, Simple Man and Tuesday’s Gone.

  3. I think Buddy Holly should be higher up.
    Also Jennings wasn’t haunted because he gave up his seat; he was haunted because he had told Buddy Holly “I hope your plane crashes” right before the flight.

  4. David Verney on

    What about Sir Matt Busby and the Busby Babes (AKA The Manchester United side that won everything and were then killed in a plane crash on the way back from Germany).

  5. That’s not a picture of Glen Miller. That’s Jimmy Stewart from the movie “The Glen Miller Story”.

  6. Payne Stewart… Though, from the sound of things, he and the others onboard that Learjet had likely been killed some four hours before their jet actually crashed…

    • There was also lead singer of an Australian band (called Skyhooks) who died in a helicopter crash. ‘Shirley’ Strachan. They had a number of hits in Australia, including ‘Women in Uniform’ which was covered by Iron Maiden.

  7. It’s interesting that all of these people were killed in small planes flying in bad weather and/or whose pilot was ill-equipped to be flying in such bad weather.

  8. In more modern times Aaliyah “25 million sold worlwide” . She was an individual that changed the face of Urban R&B, perished in a twin engine Cessna 402c, due to egregious pilot error end incompetence.

  9. First off Buddy Holly’s group was leaving Clear Lake, Iowa not Clearwater, second off Waylin Jennings gave up his seat to Ritchie Valens after losing a coin toss not JP Richards, at least according to popular legend. And last thing, while I didn’t know the man I have always looked up to Audie Murphy and have read a lot about him and this is the very first time I’ve ever heard that he had drug problems and I don’t think that is accurate.

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