The Day the Music Died

If you’ve seen the film La Bamba or heard the Don McLean song “American  Pie” (“something touched me deep inside/the day the music died”), you know at least a little bit about the airplane accident that killed rock-and-roll legends Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in February 1959.

Holly and Valens were aboard a Beech Bonanza, chartered to fly from Mason City, Iowa, to their next concert, because their decrepit tour bus was unheated and undependable. The vee-tail went down after a night takeoff into doubtful weather, and both rock stars, the pilot and a third musician, J.T. Richardson (better known as “the Big Bopper”), were killed. Country singer Waylon Jennings survived because he’d stayed on the ground, giving up his seat to Holly.

End of story? Not quite. Nearly half a century later, the Bopper’s son, Jay Richardson, has hired a forensic anthropologist, Dr. William Bass, to exhume his late father’s body and do a thorough autopsy. Only the pilot of the Bonanza was autopsied after the crash, and the accident engendered several mysteries at the time.

The Big Bopper’s body was found a full 40 feet from the crash site, in a nearby cornfield, and it was never determined whether he walked that far and collapsed or was thrown free. Even stranger, a pistol registered to Buddy Holly was found months later in another field, leading to rumors that somebody had fired it in flight, killing the pilot—a possibility that even the autopsy performed on the pilot, which certainly would have revealed a bullet wound, didn’t quash.

Bass is well-known as the founder of the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” where corpses are left in the open to decay au naturel in order to help establish baselines for pathologists to determine a variety of times and manners of death.

Bullet Redux

In 1929 young engineer Albert Mooney designed the world’s first low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear and a fully enclosed cockpit. Mooney worked for a company called Alexander Aircraft, and his airplane was the Alexander Bullet. (It’s often called the Alexander Eaglerock Bullet, since the company was far better known for building the Eaglerock biplane. In fact they were so busy building Eaglerocks that when Charles Lindbergh ordered one for his Paris flight, Alexander turned him down. Try Ryan, the firm said.)

Only 11 Bullets were built, for the airplane was never able to make it through CAA testing. The heavy, simple landing gear retracted straight aft, thus moving the center of gravity back. That caused spins to go flat and, it turned out, become unrecoverable. Three Bullets crashed, two of them fatally, and not a single example survives. Al Mooney would do better work in the future. Today the various Mooneys that are still in production, all based on his 1953 Mark 20 design, are, for their size and power, the fastest mass-production lightplanes in the world.

Mary Hanson, an experienced Arizona pilot, has long been fascinated by the Bullet. So fascinated, in fact, that Hanson is building a replica Bullet that nears completion as this is being written; the first flight, she hopes, will take place at the end of May or beginning of June.

Hanson had already built a Lancair IV-P, the pressurized, high-altitude version of one of the most complex homebuilt kit aircraft on the market, and had done it in the astounding time of 18 months. But the Bullet has taken a lot longer— nine years and counting.

The only remaining set of Bullet blueprints had in the 1960s been lost in a fire at the Smithsonian Institution, so all that Hanson had to go by were some surviving photographs of original Bullets and of some of its major internal components. She hired an ex–Air Force aeronautical engineer to calculate what spars and stringers, bulkheads and ribs might have lain under the skin, and he drew plans based on his expert surmises.

Mary Hanson’s Bullet will be as period-correct as she can make it, though with enough modern avionics (“where you can’t see them,” she says) to make the airplane usable in today’s controlled airspace.

Al Mooney was working on a design for inward-retracting landing gear, thus obviating the center of gravity change, when the Alexander Aircraft Co. fell victim to the Depression, but Hanson’s airplane will retain the original design.“It’ll be placarded to forbid spins and even intentional stalls,” she says.

Ultimately, Mary will have gained not only an airplane but a husband. Last year, she married Bob Hanson, the engineer who replicated those lost blueprints.

Farewell Tempelhof

One of the oldest and most notorious major airports in the world is closing. Berlin’s Flughafen Tempelhof will be out of business as of the end of October 2008, a save-the-airport campaign having been rejected in February by a German court. For centuries a military parade ground, the site that was to become Tempelhof saw its first flights in 1909, one of them by the Wright brothers. In 1923 it was officially declared an airport, and eventually a terminal building was erected.

That wasn’t enough for Adolf Hitler, however, who ordered his armaments minister and personal architect to expedite building the vast terminal that exists to this day, built between 1936 and 1941. At the time, it was the second largest building in the world, a three-quarter-mile limestone arc so enormous that its airside canopy covers the entire parking tarmac. Though it was never finished, the plan was to top it with a roof with space for 70,000 spectators.

Though Junkers Ju-87 Stukas and Focke Wulf Fw-190s were built in factory tunnels under the airport and flown out when completed, Tempelhof didn’t become a military field until the U.S. Army Air Forces took it over in 1947 and put in the first paved runway. (Surrounded by the city of Berlin, Tempelhof had until then been a huge sod field, permitting airplanes to land anywhere into the wind, as was typical of early aerodromes.)

Tempelhof became known the world over between June 1948 and September 1949, when it served as the hub of the Berlin Airlift. Tens of thousands of U.S., British and Canadian freighters and cargo-carrying converted bombers lugged more than 2 million tons of food and coal into the city after the Soviets shut down all ground access to Berlin. The round-the-clock aircraft stream into Tempelhof was so dense that if an airplane missed its approach during bad weather, it didn’t get a second chance but was routed straight back to its home field, hundreds of miles away.

Tempelhof remained a U.S. Air Force base until 1990, when it was re-opened to airline traffic. Business travelers particularly loved it, for though the twin parallel runways were less than 7,000 feel long and limited to midsize jets and commuterliners, Tempelhof was just a short subway ride to the city center, minutes away.

Plans are to turn it into a park or a golf course. Hitler wouldn’t have approved.

The B-29 Doc

Many aviation enthusiasts know that the restored Boeing Superfortress Fifi is the world’s only flying B-29 (albeit currently grounded by wing corrosion problems). Far fewer know, however, that a second Superfort is slowly approaching flying status in Wichita, Kansas—Doc, once part of an eight-ship air defense radar-calibration unit named after Snow White and her dwarves.

Doc is currently well on its way to total restoration, and we do mean total: Because Boeing’s Wichita factory, which originally produced Doc, is cooperating with the project, the airplane will essentially be brand-new, with zero-timed engines, when it flies again.

Until February, Doc was being rebuilt in a Boeing hangar in Wichita by a team of volunteers that included a number of Boeing employees. Unfortunately, Boeing suddenly needed the space, so Doc was then moved outdoors, roughly 60 percent of its way to flight status. Meaning there will be lots of nervous checks of the weather forecast this spring and summer in Wichita, where hail is frequent; a destructive hailstorm could wreak havoc on Doc’s 99-foot-long fuselage and tail surfaces, skinned in soft aluminum. (The wings are heavier-gauge metal.)

It won’t be the first assault the airplane has seen. Though Doc never went to war, it ended its career as a target for air-to-ground missiles at the Navy’s China Lake Weapons Center, in the Mojave Desert. Fortunately, the airplane was never hit during the four rocket attacks to which it was subjected, but corrosion from 42 years of desert exposure badly damaged a wing spar and much center-section skin, all of which has been repaired.

The Commemorative Air Force’s Fifi project recently received a $2 million donation for repairs, but Doc needs substantially more: $2.5 million to erect a hangar/workshop, $1 million to rebuild the engines and turbosuperchargers and $1.5 million to create from scratch replacements for the airplane’s 26 rubberized fuel cells and to complete the airframe restoration.

To read more, go to http:// home.att.net/~sallyann4/doc1. html. For photos of the restoration project, www.b-29doc.com.

 

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here