Remembering My Dad’s First Plane Ride and the Day the Music Died

By Wesley G. Pippert

February 2, 1959. I was a correspondent for United Press International (then still the United Press) in Pierre, South Dakota, and there was a break of a few days in the biennial session of the South Dakota legislature. I’m from Mason City, Iowa, about 400 miles from Pierre, and my father still lived there on the family farm where he was born. He had never flown so I thought during the legislature’s break I would take him on a plane ride.

We went up, taking off from the Mason City airport in a Beechcraft Bonanza with a 21-year-old pilot from Dwyer Flying Service. We flew over the family farm and over Clear Lake, famed for its Surf Ballroom, one of the few of its kind in the Midwest, and landed. The uneventful 20-minute flight was over and that was that.

That night, just after midnight, the same pilot in the same plane, which could carry three passengers plus the pilot, took off in a snow storm carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson. They were headed for Fargo-Moorhead, where their next concert was scheduled. The plane crashed in a corn field six miles northwest of the Mason City airport. They now call it The Day the Music Died.

The Mason City Globe-Gazette headlined the story on page one. Stories months later said the investigation showed that the young pilot, Roger Peterson, had not passed the instrument test at first and suffered from a bit of vertigo. That, plus the stormy conditions.

Jack Kujawaski, a bartender at the National Press Club bar in Washington, was fascinated by the story. So I brought in my scrapbook along with the $6 receipt from Dwyer Flying Service and Jack liked to tell the story to any journalists at the bar who would listen.

Wes Pippert covered state capitals, Congress, and the White House. He spent nearly 30 years with United Press International, serving first in the Bismarck and Pierre capital bureaus in the Dakotas and then in Chicago before coming to Washington, D.C. in 1966. He covered three presidential campaigns, the Carter White House, was UPI’s principal on the Watergate story, and his final UPI assignment was as Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem. Then from 1989 to 2012, he directed the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington Program.

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