February 3, 1959, has gone down in history (and a Don McLean song) as “the day the music died.” Rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J.P Richardson were killed in a plane crash alongside pilot Roger Peterson on this fateful day. Eerily, singer Ritchie Valens, who perished in this accident, had an intense fear of flying and suffered from recurring nightmares about dying in a plane crash. His phobia developed after two airplanes collided mid-air over his junior high school in Pacoima, a Los Angeles neighborhood, in 1957.
1957 Pacoima mid-air collision
On January 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B took off from Santa Monica Airport at 10:15 a.m. on its first test flight. A little over 30 minutes later, at 10:50 a.m., two Air Force F-89 jet fighters left Palmdale to test their radars.
The two F-89 jets were engaged in a routine “scissor interception.” One plane would serve as a target to test their radar equipment, and then they would switch, and the other plane would do the same.
At around 11:18 a.m., one fighter jet made a wide turn above the San Fernando Valley. As it completed the turn, the jet slammed into the wing of the DC-7B transport plane.
A portion of the DC-7B’s wing was sheared off, but the plane remained airborne for a few minutes. It then began an uncontrollable high-velocity dive toward the ground. As the airplane fell out of the sky, it rained debris onto the Pacoima neighborhood below.
A few seconds later, the DC-7B slammed into the grounds of the Pacoima Congregational Church. All four crew members on board were killed. Major parts of the plane fell onto the playground of Pacoima Junior High School, which sat adjacent to the church. The main center of the fuselage and each of the four engines all embedded themselves in the asphalt of the playground of the Junior High School.
At the time of the crash, nearly 220 boys were wrapping up their outdoor athletic activities. Ronnie Brann (13) and Robert Zallan (12) were struck by wreckage and killed immediately. Days later, a student named Evan Elsner (12) died from his injuries. An estimated 75 students suffered from both major and minor injuries.
Ritchie Valens was not at school that day
Singer Ritchie Valens (who was still known as Richard Valenzuela) was a 15-year-old student at Pacoima Junior High School in 1957 when the Pacoima mid-air collision occurred. However, he was not at school on January 31 because he was attending his grandfather’s funeral.
Ritchie and his family members saw what had happened from miles away and decided to drive in that direction to see what had happened and if they could help out. Only when they arrived at the crash site did they realize it was Ritchie’s school. One of Ritchie’s best friends was killed in this accident, and many of his other friends were terribly injured.
Ritchie’s brother, Bob Valenzuela, later recalled that “if we hadn’t gone to my grandfather’s funeral, Ritchie would have been out there, in the playground. My grandfather’s death saved Ritchie’s life.”
Despite not being at school when the mid-air collision happened, Ritchie Valens developed an intense fear of flying because of this plane crash. By 1957, Ritchie would bring his guitar out on the playground while his fellow students would gather around him and listen. Valens was convinced that if he had been there that day, he would have been one of the victims of the 1957 mid-air collision.
Donna Fox, the subject of Ritchie’s hit song “Donna,” recalled that Ritchie “would have nightmares about that [flying]. He just had a horrible fear of small planes, and planes in general. He indicated that he would never fly. He just would never fly.”
The day that music died
In 1958, one year after this plane crash, Ritchie Valens’s music career really took off after he recorded and released “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba.” As his star rose, Valens realized that he would have to get over his fear of flying in order to go on tours.
In January 1959, Ritchie Valens set out with Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson, and Frankie Sardo on a 24-day tour of the mid-Western United States. The tour was known as “The Winter Dance Party.”
The performers took a bus to get to all their destinations. However, by the time the group reached the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2, Buddy Holly had enough of the freezing, unreliable tour bus. So, he decided to hire a plane from a local flying service that would take the crew to Moorhead, Minnesota, after their performance in Clear Lake.
There was room for a total of three passengers on the flight. One seat automatically went to Buddy Holly because he hired the plane service. Originally, the remaining two seats were intended for members of Holly’s band, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings.
However, J.P. Richardson wasn’t feeling well and convinced Waylon Jennings to give up his seat on the plane. Tommy Allsup flipped a coin with Ritchie Valens for a seat on the plane. Valens won the spot, and Allsup took the bus to the next stop on the tour. After all the spots were decided, Jennings and Holly joked about the change in plans. Holly told Jennings, “I hope your damned bus freezes up again,” to which Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
Tragically, Jennings’ joke became reality when the small, single-engined Beechcraft 35 Bonanza went down just outside Clear Lake, Iowa. The crash site was not discovered until the next morning, after no one had heard anything from the pilot or musicians. The bodies of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were found near the wreckage of the plane. Richardson’s body was found over a fence in a cornfield. The pilot’s body remained buckled into the plane’s wreckage.
More from us: The Tragic Death of Carole Lombard
February 3, 1959, is widely regarded as “the day the music died.” However, it is strange and sad that only two years before the crash that killed Ritchie Valens, his life was greatly impacted by another tragic plane accident.