Back when air travel wasn’t as safe as it is now, it wasn’t a rare occurrence to find out that someone you know has died in an air crash. If not personally, then someone famous, as quite a few celebrities have lost their lives in air accidents in the past.
You may have heard of some of them – like the infamous crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” JP Richardson in 1959, or the more recent one that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter – though there are many more you may not remember. The number is actually surprisingly high, suggesting that air travel has been particularly deadly for celebrities.
10. John Denver
John Denver was one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the USA in the beginning of the 1970s, and is still remembered for classics like “Sunshine On My Shoulders” and “Rocky Mountain High”. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was also a successful actor, starring in a range of movies and TV shows.
Apart from his accomplishments in showbusiness, Denver was also an experienced pilot, with over 2,700 hours of total flying experience. That would ultimately cause his untimely demise, as he died in an airplane crash in 1997. According to the reports, he wasn’t familiar with the plane, as it was a homemade model built by someone else. He was also not legally permitted to fly at the time, as his license had been suspended for drunk driving in the past. At the time of this flight, however, no traces of alcohol were found in his system.
9. Jenni Rivera
Even if many people may not remember her now, at the peak of her career in the ’90s, Jenni Rivera was one of the most successful and well-known performers in the US and Latin America. With over 15 million records sold and most of her shows selling out, she was responsible for bringing many regional Mexican music styles – like Banda – to the mainstream in the US.
Apart from that, she was also an entrepreneur and philanthropist, as well as an inspiring figure for women across Latin America – especially in the regional Mexican music scene. It was – and in large parts still is – an industry run and managed by men, and Rivera’s success paved the way for a generation of female performers and artists in Mexico and beyond.
Sadly, her career would be short-lived, as she died in a plane crash – along with six others – in 2012. It happened when she was on her way back from a concert in Mexico, though the cause of the accident was never discovered.
8. Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the most well-known country rock bands in the early ’70s, and is still remembered for classics like “Sweet Home Alabama”. They won many awards and accolades throughout their career, including an inclusion on Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest artists list and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While Lynyrd Skynyrd existed and toured in some form until very recently, the band’s career as we know it was over in 1977, when three of its members – Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines – died in a plane crash in southeastern Mississippi. Reportedly, the plane ran out of fuel and attempted to make an emergency landing, though couldn’t find anywhere to land. It crashed in a dense forest, killing six people and seriously injuring twenty others that escaped, including other members of the band.
7. Carlos Gardel
Carlos Gardel may not be a widely-known figure around the world, though in parts of Argentina and Uruguay, he is still remembered as a legend. A French-Argentine singer, composer and actor born in France in 1890, Gardel was by far the most well-known singer in the world of tango – a type of dance and music found in Argentina and Uruguay. He wrote many of the classics of the genre, and is still remembered as one of the greatest singers of his time.
Gardel’s career was tragically cut short in 1935, when he died in a plane crash in the city of Medellin, Colombia. It was reported that a crowd of over 20,000 was awaiting his arrival in Buenos Aires, where he was finally laid to rest. While the cause of the crash is still debated by his fans, according to reports from the time, the plane had collided with another plane on the runway during takeoff.
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was in large part responsible for the resurgence of blues in the early ’80s, and is still regarded as one of the greats of the genre. Working with some of the biggest musicians at the time, like David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, Vaughan had already established himself as one of the greatest guitarists of all-time within a few years of his career.
It would be short-lived, however, as he passed away in a helicopter crash at the peak of his career. It happened in East Troy, Wisconsin in August 1990, where he had spent his last few days touring with Eric Clapton. The helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff, killing Vaughan and three of Clapton’s associates.
Like most of the other entries on this list, there are still many theories around exactly what caused the crash. No explosion was reported at the crash site, and all they found was debris scattered across an area of 200 square feet. While the likely cause was the same as all other plane crashes – a crucial piece of equipment stops working at a crucial time – we may never know.
5. James Horner
Unlike others on this list, James Horner’s airplane crash may have been entirely his fault, though that doesn’t make it any less tragic. Easily one of the greatest film composers of all time, Horner worked on many films you may have seen, including Braveheart, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind, Troy and many others. He won two Oscars for his work on Titanic, along with a slew of other awards and recognitions throughout his decades-long career.
He was an avid pilot, too, which also happens to be what caused his death. Horner died in an air crash while flying alone in Santa Barbara County, California in June, 2015. It was later discovered that it happened while he was attempting aerobic maneuvers at a low altitude. The response to his death was immediate and global, as quite a few people around the world had grown to recognize and love his work.
Often called the ‘Queen of R&B’, Aaliyah is also perhaps one of the youngest celebrities to ever die. Her career met a tragic end at the age of 22, when she – along with eight others – died in an air crash on the way to Miami. While the cause of the crash was never discovered, it was suspected to be engine failure.
Throughout her rather short-lived career, Aaliyah pioneered some of the most common features of R&B today, including the kind of soft vocals you hear in almost all soul and R&B albums of the past few years. Even though she passed away at a very young age, Aaliyah’s impact on R&B and pop music has been immense, and she’s still remembered as one of the pioneers from the golden years of the genre.
3. John F. Kennedy Jr.
After the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, his son – John F. Kennedy Jr. – instantly came into the media spotlight. While John Jr.’s early years were widely scrutinized by journalists and TV anchors, he liked to keep to himself and didn’t give them much to publish. Regardless, his marriage to Carolyn Bessette in 1996 made the news around the world, even if it was a largely private affair.
This journey would, sadly, come to an end in 1999, when the couple, along with Carolyn’s sister Lauren Bessette, died in an air crash near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The bodies were recovered from the ocean a few days after the crash, though we still don’t know exactly what caused it. Their death caused an almost-instant outpouring of condolences from state heads, celebrities and other important people from almost every other part of the world, with some reports of people coming out on the streets to publicly mourn in various US cities.
2. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant – with his nickname ‘Black Mamba’ – is often regarded as one of the best basketball players ever. He won five NBA championships in his 20 year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, along with countless other accolades and individual awards until his retirement in 2016. Even after retirement, Bryant was involved with the sport in many ways, including writing and narrating an Oscar-winning short film called Dear Basketball.
Unfortunately, his journey would be cut short on January 26, 2020, when he and his 13-year old daughter, Gianna lost their lives in a helicopter crash in the city of Calabasas, California. While it’s not clear what caused it, reports suggest that it may have been bad weather and low visibility due to fog, and officials believe his pilot suffered spatial disorientation during the flight.
1. Buddy Holly
The year 1959 wasn’t a great one for rock & roll. Elvis Presley had just left for the army, and Chuck Berry was just about to be arrested for transporting a 14-year old girl across state lines and having sex with her – one of multiple sexual misconduct allegations throughout Berry’s career.
The greatest tragedy of the year, though, was the air crash that killed Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” JP Richardson – three of the most recognized and beloved rock and roll stars at the time. It happened in Clear Lake, Iowa during their ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour across the Midwest, when the three were making their way to the next venue to perform. The cause of the crash wasn’t clear at first, though later investigations established that it was due to bad weather.
The day – February 3, 1959 – has since been immortalized as the ‘The Day the Music Died’, as it remains one of the biggest tragedies in music history.