Flying to His Own Tune
An Interview with Rich Everitt
by Joyce Dixon
Rich Everitt likes life on the edge. He teases gravity as a pilot, but it was his roles as a musician and journalist that triggered the inspiration for a book exploring the deaths of singers and musicians who met their end in flight. His unique knowledge of air travel and bands adds to the depth of his book.
Rich Everitt began his broadcasting career when, at age 10, he read a local newspaper over a “crystal radio” he made from a coil of wire and a 10-cent diode from Radio Shack. Since then, he has won numerous media awards for investigative reporting, public service reporting and producing. As a TV reporter, Rich Everitt has exposed corruption in local governments, covered civil unrest in the South (he was the first Television News Reporter to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and returned with the video), and interviewed most of the major newsmakers of the past 20 years.
Did one specific musician’s crash inspire the book? Which story touched you the most as a pilot?
One bright morning several years ago, I was flying in through the blue skies of Texas in my small, single engine airplane en route to Myrtle Beach, SC where I was to play with my trio, The Blind Willies. I was humming the tune to the old Ricky Nelson song, Lonesome Town in my mind because we were going to play it that night when suddenly I realized I was flying near the area where Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band had crashed. Then it occurred to me, I was doing the same thing he was doing at the time of his death – flying to a performance. As I droned on, all alone at ten thousand feet, I thought about Nelson and his fiery crash. I recalled during my days as a TV journalist, many reported Nelson and his band accidentally caught his airplane on fire while using cans of hairspray as blow torches to cook up drugs in the cabin. I wondered if that really was what happened. So, I called a friend of mine at the National Transportation and Safety Board and he sent me the final investigation report on Nelson’s crash – an inches thick documentation of exhaustive research. I was astonished to learn just how wrong the initial reports were. Naturally I then wondered about the other crashes. Had the news reports about them been equally as flawed? The reporter in me went to work to ferret out the answers. It turned into a treasure hunt. We discovered the real causes of these crashes but even more interesting, we discovered amazing stories surrounding these people and their crashes.
As a fan, musician and pilot I was saddened by what we discovered. As a fan and musician, I join so many others in sensing the tremendous loss of the people who sang the soundtracks of our lives. As a pilot, I am saddened by the discovery that all of these crashes were probably preventable.
As a pilot, did you learn anything new within these events that will improve your future flights?
Although Falling Stars: Air Crashes that Filled Rock & Roll Heaven is written for a general audience, it is being read widely by aviators and aviation buffs for the obvious reason – those of us who love to fly also love to read about flying. Although I don’t get on a soapbox, pilots and passengers alike cannot help but notice when they read Falling Stars that almost without exception, these crashes happened because pilots broke rules. Flying, even in small planes like mine, is acceptably safe as long as you do all that stuff they teach you in flight school. But, too many pilots have sealed their fate cutting a corner, bending a rule or pushing their luck.
In the Pasty Cline accident, you mentioned pilot Randy Hughes faith in his Piper Comanche to overcome most air hazards. How did this play into the events that followed?
Patsy’s Pilot, Randy Hughes, was short on experience and long on confidence. A dangerous combination for any pilot but especially one flying a complex, high performance airplane. In the right pilot’s hands, the Piper Comanche is a safe, sturdy machine. But a machine is only as effective as its operator and will not compensate for poor judgment or inferior flying skills. Both of which Randy Hughes exhibited on the fatal flight. Earlier, he had told Patsy’s husband a story about his airplane. In the story a pilot found himself in a terrible, dark storm, toss about by turbulence in a gut wrenching roller coaster ride while lightening cracked around him. Eventually, he punched safely out of the storm thanks, he said, to the superior characteristics of the Commanche. The story, while possibly true, was more likely apocryphal. But with stories like that common among aviators, The Air Safety Foundation has noted an over-confidence among Commanche pilots in particular and points that a little more humility among them would save a lot more lives.
One oddity of the Otis Redding crash into Lake Monona near Madison, Wisconsin, was that the only survivor was in fact the only one on board who did not know how to swim. Since this sounded like a survivable ditching, what killed the others?
Many people are surprised to learn that most of those on board the Otis Redding airplane did not actually die from the airplane crash. According to the coroner, most of them survived the crash only to drown in the frigid waters of Lake Monona as they waited for help to arrived.
After the John Denver crash, the tabloids spoke of his drinking history and alluded to that being possibly responsible. Considering John Denver’s strong flight background, what went wrong?
John Denver was an excellent pilot, certified to fly just about anything with wings - up to and including his Lear Jet. That makes his crash all the more difficult to understand. John Denver broke the first rule of flying. From your first day in flight school, you are taught to “first, fly the airplane.” No matter what else is happening – if the plane is on fire, if you are being hijacked, if space aliens are sucking you into their ship with a retractor beam – “first, fly the airplane.” John Denver died because he broke that cardinal rule. He took his hand off the control stick and turned facing backwards to fidget with a balky fuel valve. Distracted by the resisting valve, he failed to notice his plane had rolled into a dive. It plunged into Monterey Bay, killing him instantly.
It is unfortunate that the media over-played Denver’s drinking problems. While they were real and well documented – he had two recent DUI’s - they had nothing whatsoever to do with his crash. Toxicology analysis showed Denver was stone cold sober when he crashed. While he was willing to drive drunk, he apparently drew the line at flying.
Do you feel that pilots – especially young pilots – are overwhelmed by celebrity and ignored potential flight issues such as weather conditions and plane weight?
I raise this question in the most talked about crash of them all – The Buddy Holly Crash, February 3, 1959 – the Day the Music Died. Buddy had chartered a flight to take himself, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) from Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, ND. Twenty one year old Roger Peterson was assigned to pilot the airplane. When the performers arrived at the airport just after midnight, the weather was bad and getting worse. Peterson was not qualified to fly in such conditions but boarded his passengers and took off anyway. Moments later, in conditions he knew he was not qualified to fly in, Peterson, and his three passengers crashed and died. So, we are left to wonder, why Peterson would deliberately fly in those conditions? It seems fair to me to put yourself in the shoes of a twenty one year old pilot just staring his flying career and consider how difficult it would be say “No” to the three biggest rock stars in the world.
As a journalist, what major air disasters have you covered?
I guess like so many things in life, the first one is always the one that seems most vivid. It was a Southern Airways DC-9 crash just north of Atlanta, GA back in the mid-70’s. The airplane was en route from Huntsville, Alabama, and flew into a thunderstorm. The twin engines ingested so much large hail they both failed. Hail the size of softballs cracked the windshield. The pilots desperately tried to glide the airplane to Dobbins Air Base but just couldn’t stretch the glide far enough. The jet barely missed an elementary school, crashed into a country neighborhood and exploded. It killed all but two people on board and several more on the ground. I arrived on the scene at about the same time as many of the emergency crews, before the area had been sealed off. In the late afternoon drizzle, I walked through the crash site and saw first hand the horror that happens when it all goes bad. I also met some hero’s that day – two that lived and two that did not. The two that lived were a passenger and a flight attendant. Despite their injuries, both made repeated trips into and out of the burning crash site to help other victims. Common people, uncommon valor. The hero’s that did not make it were the pilots. Upon arriving at the crash site, I made my way through the charred shards both human and mechanical to the cockpit, one of the few parts of the plane still recognizable. I gazed upon the tragedy inside and wondered what had it been like in those seats just moments earlier. A few weeks later, I found out. The NTSB released the recordings of the pilots as they desperately manhandled a dead machine from 14,000 feet all the way to the ground. It was all business – calmly and coolly running through engine restart procedures, calculating glide ratios – all the things pilots are trained to do. No panic, no hysterics. I’ll always remember their last transmission to the Air Traffic Controller. They simply told him, “ We’re going to put it on a two lane. We’re down to nothing.” A simple statement of how they intended to solve their problem. The men in that cockpit were professionals all the way to the end. It comforts me to know when I’m back there in the cabin that pilots like that are up in the front of the plane.
What do you love about flying?
Life at ten thousand feet is exquisitely beautiful and fills my heart with joy.
You are a member of the acoustic trio, The Blind Willies. Where do y’all perform and what kind of music do you play?
We’re based out of Myrtle Beach, SC. It is where we all met although only one of the Willies still lives there. We play acoustic music. Wooden instruments only – nothing electric. I write most of the songs. Most people call our style “Americana” although sometimes I think “Americana” is just what they call every style they can’t define!
Your love of music and flying comes across in Falling Stars. Has it inspired you to research another topic?
As a matter of fact, Falling Stars: Air Crashes that Filled Rock & Roll Heaven is the first of a trilogy. I’ll be back next year with the next one. My publisher doesn’t want me to say much about it yet, but if you like Falling Stars: Air Crashes that Filled Rock & Roll Heaven, you’re going to love what’s coming next.
© 2005, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved