Taken far before it was his time, John Denver is a music legend that reigned over the 1970′s capturing the hearts of music listeners all over the world. What caused this crash? Could it have been prevented? These were common questions amongst John Denver’s fans and his music lovers when everyone learned the tragic news of his sudden death at a young 53 years old.
When Denver’s Long-EZ experimental plane went down over Monterey Bay, California it was just the beginning to an investigation that would span several of the coming months. The fiberglass, single-engined Rutan Model “Long-EZ” that he was piloting was a model craft that could be built at home and was reportedly distributed by Burt Rutan’s Rutan Aircraft Factory.
The National Transportation Safety Board was called in as well to investigate and pinpoint the exact reason for the aircraft’s failure. In a press release submitted on January 26, 1999, a little over a year after the fatal crash, the National Transportation Safety Board’s findings ruled the crash was caused by Denver’s attempt at switching to another fuel tank, resulting in an unintentional attention diversion from piloting the plane. Interviews done with Denver’s technician during the investigation revealed that to avoid having fuel lines run through the cockpit and pose a potential threat to the craft should there be a non-traditional landing, the fuel selector handle had been placed on the opposite side of the craft against the manufacturer’s intended design. During further discussion, the technician admitted that both he and Denver had struggled to reach and switch the handle, but opted to quick fix the issue with a mirror and a patchwork plan to auto-pilot the craft should something go wrong.
According to the press release, in addition to the fuel selector handle issue, a number of factors contributed to the happenings on that October day including poor pre-flight planning, failure to refuel his plane as needed, and Denver had very little experience piloting that particular experimental craft, which he had purchased only a short time prior to the crash. The crash completely ruined the craft, killing Denver’ immediately. Witnesses during another interview with a local Monterey television station said the only indication something was wrong was ‘a popping sound’ before it plummeted straight down into the water.
Due to the findings on the John Denver tragedy, the National Transportation Safety Board was also called apon to make some recommendations to the FAA. On the ruling of an improperly marked fuel switch, it was addressed that since the switch was so difficult to quickly and efficiently reach for someone piloting a craft solo, a change needed to be made. Their recommendations also included attention towards establishing such guidelines that would require a pilot to undergo specialized training before piloting particular aircraft. On top of establishing that particular rule, they recommended amending two rules already in place covering the issue of properly marking instruments and cockpit gauges to be more easily accessed during flight and requiring regular and periodic inspections to verify these requirements are being met.
It is unfortunate that such tragedy had to be the trigger to force such rules to be re-evaluated. With the help of the investigation, piloting smaller craft has become safer and monitored more over the last decade due to the findings by the National Transportation Safety Board.