10 Famous People That Died in Airplane Crashes

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A Brief History

On July 2, 1937, the last radio transmission from Amelia Earhart and her radio operator Fred Noonan was heard.  After that, they were never seen or heard again, lost over the vast Pacific.  Earhart was an aviation pioneer and perhaps the world’s best known aviatrix.  Other famous or important people have also died in aircraft mishaps, and here we list 10 of them, hopefully among the most interesting if not the most famous.  (Quite a few entertainers have died in airplane crashes so we cannot list all of them, and famous air to air combat aces that died in battle are too numerous as well.)  (Honorable mention to the President, former President, Chief of Staff of the Military, Deputy Foreign Minister, and 18 members of the Parliament of Poland who all died together with other military officers and government officials in a crash of their airliner in Russia in 2010.)

Digging Deeper

10. Audie Murphy, 1971.

The unimposing Murphy just happened to be the most decorated American soldier of World War II (probably ever), having won every single American medal for heroism, including the Medal of Honor.  He actually won 2 Silver Stars and 2 Bronze Stars, as well as 3 Purple Hearts and top medals from France and Belgium.  He and the other occupants of a private plane died in fog and rain in Virginia.  It is hard to imagine any other American fighting man (Chesty Puller?) that was so heroic so many times.

9.  Knute Rockne, 1931.

Considered by many to be the greatest college football coach of all time, Rockne was born in Norway and died in Iowa when the Fokker Tri-Motor he was flying in lost a wing.  Cracked fact:  Despite hearing people normally pronouncing his name “noot,”  the “K” is not silent and should be pronounced.

8.  Roberto Clemente, 1972.

Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 years, belting 3000 hits, earning 12 All Star nods, 12 Gold Gloves and winning the MVP award in 1966.  He died in a DC-7 crash off Puerto Rico when the overloaded plane was headed to Managua, Nicaragua for disaster relief.  Clemente, a highly respected former US Marine is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

7.  Tony Lema/Payne Stewart, 1966/1999.

Golfer “Champagne” Tony Lema got his name by offering the press corps champagne if he won a tournament.  A popular player (perhaps second to Arnold Palmer when he died) Lema won a US Open and 18 other tournaments.  He died when the Beechcraft Bonanza he was flying in crashed at an Illinois golf course.  Stewart had won 11 PGA tournaments including a PGA Championship and a US Open when the Learjet he was flying in depressurized, killing all aboard from hypoxia.  The plane with all aboard dead, flew itself from Florida to South Dakota before running out of fuel and crashing.

6.  Patsy Cline, 1963.

If you are young and have not heard of her, be advised she was voted #11 by VH1 on their 100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll1 list in 1999, and she was not even a rock and roll singer!  Born Virginia Patterson Hensley, this famous country artist had crossover pop appeal, and was the first woman (solo artist) voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973.  Her life was cut short at age 30 when the Piper PA-24 Comanche she was flying in crashed in a driving rain in Tennessee.

5.  Carole Lombard, 1942.

Born Jane Alice Peters, Lombard was the highest paid movie star in Hollywood in the late 1930’s.  On top of that kind of fame, she was married to Clark Gable, the number 1 male movie star of his time, from 1939 until her death.  The airliner(Douglas DST) she was flying in hit a mountain in Nevada, killing all on board.

4.  Francis Gary Powers, 1977.

Famous for being shot down over the Soviet Union while flying a U-2 spy plane in 1960, Powers was traded back to the US in exchange for a Russian spy.  He later worked as a test pilot for Lockheed, and in 1970 took a job flying a news helicopter for a Los Angeles television station.  He died when his Bell 206 helicopter ran out of fuel before reaching the Burbank Airport. Cracked fact:  He probably would not have died, but as the helicopter fluttered (auto rotated) down, Powers saw children playing where he was going to crash land, and he took evasive action, resulting in the crash that cost his life.

3.  Ricky Nelson, 1985.

The second best selling recording artist in history at the time of his death (Elvis was ahead of him and Michael Jackson was close behind), Nelson and 6 other people in his Douglas DC-3 died (2 survived) when the plane crashed due to a fire that had broken out.  Rumors that the fire was started by freebasing cocaine have been discounted by the NTSB.  Cracked fact:  The DC-3 had previously been owned by the DuPont family and then by Jerry Lee Lewis.

2.  Glenn Miller, 1944.

The name might not ring a bell with younger people, but back in 1944 Glenn Miller was a big star of the big band era.  He was the biggest selling recording artist of 1939-1943. His UC-64 Norseman airplane crashed in the English Channel when he was on his way to mainland Europe to entertain the troops.  Like Amelia Earhart, no trace of people or plane was ever found.

1.  Buddy Holly, 1959.

Charles Hardin Holly, rock and roll music pioneer and influential force made the mistake of taking off in a snowstorm with a pilot not qualified for instrument flying.  When the plane crashed, killing all aboard, the victims included fellow rock stars J. P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) and Richie Valens.  The day of their deaths is known today as “The Day the Music Died” (thanks to the Don McLean hit song, American Pie.)

Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you include on this list?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bartlett, Christopher.  Air Crashes and Miracle Landings: 60 Narratives: (How, When … and Most Importantly Why).  OpenHatch Books, 2011.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.