Notable Musicians Killed in Aviation Accidents

Rick Margin
8 min readDec 26, 2023

The Day The Music Died…

With the advent of passenger aviation, musicians were naturally early adopters to this transportation option due to its obvious convenience. Beginning in the 1920’s, as more commercial flights were introduced, the public’s confidence in flying slowly increased. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the number of airline passengers grew from just 6,000 in 1930 to nearly a half million by 1934. However, most of these passengers were wealthier than the average musician of this era who couldn’t afford this travel option. But, as you’ll read, that changed quickly.

I’m going to organize the list chronologically, but given that Wikipedia lists 38 musicians, I’ll focus on the most genre notable deaths and list the official cause of the accident. So, let’s get started.

Glenn Miller (1942 — Cause Unknown)

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra were the best-selling big band in America at the time of his death. In just a 4-year mainstream music career, they scored 69 Top Ten hits and 16 No1’s. They were also featured on the big screen in their first movie Sun Valley Serenade followed by Orchestra Wives. At the top of his career, in 1942 he attempted to join the military in WWII but was rejected due to his age. However, he finally persuaded the Army to allow him to “modernize the Army band” where he formed the Major Glenn Miller Army Air Forces Orchestra. He and 2 other officers went down over the English Channel only 2 months later.

Here’s Glenn Miller performing in his brief stint as the leader of the Army band.

Buddy Holly (1959 — Pilot Error)

He was an early 22 year old Rock and Roll pioneer and influencer. Unlike most of his peers, he wrote all his hits including his only No1 single “That’ll Be The Day”. He chose to take a late night winter flight to their next show to get his laundry done when the plane went down with fellow musicians J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Richey Valens. In 1986 Holly was among the first artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No13 in its list of “100 Greatest Artists” in 2010.

Buddy being interviewed on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Patsy Cline (1963 — Pilot Error)

She’s a country legend, but also recorded in other genres including gospel, rockabilly, pop and honky-tonk. She is seen as a pioneer for woman in country music due to not only her musicianship, but her strong personality when it came to dealing with males, who dominated the industry. She established a role model for future female country stars and has been memorialized in numerous movies and a documentary. Patsy scored 4 Top 5 hits in her short career including her iconic song “Crazy”. She died at 30 years old due to a poorly thought out decision to fly in known bad weather conditions in a private plane. Also killed in the same crash were country notables Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. She was the first solo female artist elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.

Jim Reeves (1964 — Pilot Error/Weather)

He was known as “Gentleman Jim” and charted mostly country records from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. He was instrumental in developing the Nashville Sound, which used string instruments and lusher background arrangements. This helped him reach the Top 10 Country chart 10 times including 4 No1 songs. Reeves toured in both Europe and South Africa, where he was more popular than Elvis Presley. He, along with his business partner, died at 40 years old while piloting his own plane he encountered a pop-up thunderstorm. He entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967.

Otis Redding (1967 — Pilot Error)

He is best known for his posthumous No1 hit, “Dock of the Bay” for which he was a co-writer. It was the first song in both the US and UK to achieve this honor. Until the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, for which he delivered an amazing performance, his audiences were primarily black. So, his career stock was on the rise. He died in that same year in his own private plane while touring with 4 other band members. He was 26 years old, a successful businessman, a very committed family man and charitable. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Redding in 1989.

Jim Croce (1973 — Pilot Error)

This rock singer/songwriter died tragically along with 5 others in a charted plane he was using for a 45-stop tour. His global appeal and career were accelerating at the time of his death. With 5 Billboard Top 10 Hits including No1 “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” his original songs were instantly recognizable. He was 30 years old. In 1990, Croce was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Ronnie Van Zant (1977 — Pilot Error)

He was the founding member and lead singer for the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd who produced iconic songs like “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama”. He and 2 other band members were killed when their charted flight crashed during a tour. He was 29 years old. The surviving band members suffered serious injuries as well. Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Ricky Nelson (1985 — Poor Plane Maintenance)

He originally appeared as an actor and musician on the very popular The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet TV show, a family-based program starring his real life family. The network positioned him as TV’s version of Elvis Presley. He went on to be a very successful musician and movie star. He died at age 44 along with 6 others in a failed crash landing in a private charted airplane. He placed 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, including 20 Billboard Top 10 hits including 2 No1 songs, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Stevie Ray Vaughan (1990 — Pilot Error)

Stevie Ray is consistently mentioned as one of the most influential and greatest blues rock guitarist of all time. His prime career only spanned 7 years in which he reached the top 5 of the Billboard Rock chart, including the iconic No1 song “Crossfire”. Strangely he only had 2 top 10 studio albums. He died at 35 years old in a post-concert helicopter crash which also killed 4 others not even a mile after taking off. Vaughan was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

John Denver (1997 — Pilot Error)

He projected an All-American international media image, his music had strong crossover age appeal and he was a multi-genre acoustic writer including country, folk, soft rock and pop. Denver had 7 Billboard Top 10 hits and 4 reaching No1. He appeared in movies; documentaries, was a political & environmental activist and had his own TV variety show in the 1970’s. He was an experienced pilot and died in a single-fatality plane crash at 53 years old. In 2011, Denver became the first inductee into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

Aaliyah (2001 — Pilot Error)

She was a contemporary R&B, pop, hip-hop singer and actress dubbed the “Queen of Urban Pop”. She had 2 No1 singles and 3 Top 5 albums on Billboard’s R&B chart. She died at the age of 22 along with 8 others. In 2023 she was inducted posthumuously into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.

Troy Gentry (2017 — Pilot Error)

The other half of the award winning Southern rock duo Montgomery Gentry, Troy died in a helicopter crash on the way to a show. He was 50 years old. They had a lot of recording success evidenced by their Billboard Hot Country rankings with 5 No1’s singles, an additional 10 Top 10 hits and 5 Top 5 albums in the early 2000’s. Seven weeks before he died, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In conclusion, this list of 12 very accomplished musicians, some at the early promising stage of their career, while others had peaked and were continuing to do what they loved. Of the artists noted, pilot error accounted for almost all their deaths. Half of the crashes occurred in only an 18 year period (1959–1977) in the 81 year span from 1942 to 2023.

Coincidentally, many famous musicians (e.g. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Cass Elliot, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Keith Moon) who died of drug-related causes during this same short time period. They too “piloted” their own private plane and sadly, pilot error was again the cause.

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Rick Margin

A curious guy interested in both understanding & writing about meaningful issues. Email @ ric62551@gmail.com. Join in at https://medium.com/@ric625