A Brief History
On September 7, 1909, French pilot Eugène Lefebvre flew a newly French built Wright biplane into history when he crashed and died, becoming the first person ever to die in an airplane crash. We have previously reported on “10 Famous People That Died in Airplane Crashes” and today we add to that list with more famous victims of aircraft disasters. Who would you add to this list?
1. Kobe Bryant, Basketball Star, 2020.
Arguably one of the greatest basketball players of all time and a popular sports figure, Bryant was killed along with his daughter and 7 other people in a tragic helicopter crash in California on January 26, 2020. His accomplishments include 5 NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA All Star appearances with 4 All Star MVP awards, twice NBA scoring champion, NBA Slam Dunk Champion, 12 times named to NBA All-Defensive Team, and a 25.0 points per game scoring average. In his last game played, he scored an amazing 60 points at the end of the 2015-2016 season. He is the 4th highest scorer in NBA history. He was 41 years old when he died.
2. Aaliyah, Singer/Actress, 2001.
An American songstress that blossomed at an early age, Aaliyah Dana Haughton became one of those great performers identifiable by only her first name. Her debut album sold over 3 million copies in the US alone, and her beauty earned her a place in the movies. Unfortunately, she died in a plane crash in the Bahamas while still filming the major motion picture Queen of the Damned in which she had the title role. The pilot of the plane that killed Aaliyah and 8 other people was not only unlicensed at the time of the crash, but also was found to have cocaine and alcohol in his system. She was only 22 years old.
3. Otis Redding, Singer/Songwriter, 1967.
Not only a great soul singer, Redding penned the famous Aretha Franklin hit, “Respect” as well as other tunes. Only 26 years old when he died, Redding had won a pair of Grammy Awards and his biggest hit song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” went to #1 after he died. He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
4. Rocky Marciano, Boxing Champion, 1969.
The only Heavyweight Boxing Champion to ever retire undefeated, Marciano ruled the ring from 1952 to 1956, defending his title successfully 6 times before retiring. Born Rocco Francis Marchegiano, Rocky finished his 49 pro fight career with 46 knockouts, one of the highest knockout percentages ever. He was only 45 years old when he died in the crash of a Cessna 172, although he would have turned 46 the next day.
5. Jim Croce, Singer/Songwriter, 1973.
Oh no! Soon after this talented singer/songwriter hit it big with his 1972 album You Don’t Mess Around with Jim which propelled his career with 3 charting singles, he died in the crash of the Beechcraft E18S the day before his album, I Got a Name was to be released, the album that contained “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” his first #1 hit. All 6 people aboard the plane were killed, and Croce was only 30 years old. His folksy tunes were easy to sing along with and resonated with the public. We believe he would have enjoyed great continued success had he lived longer.
6. Roald Amundsen, Explorer, 1928.
A famous Arctic and Antarctic explorer that accomplished the first ever seaborne passage of the Northwest Passage (1903-1906), was the first to lead an expedition to the South Pole (1911) and was the first to fly over the North Pole in an airship (1926), this Norwegian adventurer was in a French Latham 47 sea-plane (flying boat) in the process of searching for the lost Italian airship, Italia, when his plane disappeared. He was 55 years old and his plane is believed to have gone down in the Barents Sea.
7. Bessie Coleman, Aviation Pioneer, 1926.
A Texan born in 1892, Coleman was of African American and Native American descent. The daughter of poor sharecroppers, Cherokee on her father’s side and African American on her mother’s side, Bessie aspired to more, though she worked picking cotton. After attending a single semester at Langston University in Oklahoma (then called the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University), she acquired a taste for flight and after working various jobs in Chicago, traveled to France for pilot training, as the United States had few opportunities for a woman of African or Native American descent to receive such instruction. Bessie had received sponsorship for her flight training from an African American banker who was inspired by her quest. In preparation for her training in France, Bessie learned the French language. Bessie earned her wings and was renowned as a dare-devil stunt pilot, having become the first female licensed pilot of either African American or Native American descent. In 1926, while flying as a passenger in a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) that she had bought used and abused, the plane went out of control and Bessie was thrown from the aircraft to her death. She had not been wearing her seat belt in the open cockpit plane because the following day she was going to make a parachute jump from the plane and was scoping out the mechanics of how to bail out of the plane. The pilot was also killed in the subsequent crash. Bessie was only 34 years old. In her honor schools and streets among other things have been named a stamp bearing her image was issued by the US Post Office.
8. Steve Fossett, Aviation Pioneer and Adventurer, 2007.
Born in Tennessee in 1944, James Stephen Fossett attained renown as a sailor, aviator, and successful financier. He set numerous world records in sailing and in aviation, both in fixed wing aircraft and in balloons. In fact, he set an amazing 100 world records of all varieties, with 60 of those records still standing when he died. (His record setting flying of the Scaled Composites Model 311 Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer gets a nod in our recent article, “10+ Really Weird Looking Real Airplanes.”) In 2007, Fossett disappeared somewhere over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California while he was piloting a light airplane. His remains were not found until a year later, as was the wreckage of the airplane.
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rock Band, 1977.
Luckily, not the entire band died in the plane crash in 1977, though the main part of the band did perish in the crash of the Convair CV-240. Killed in the crash were Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, along with Steve’s sister, back-up singer Cassie Gaines and crew members of the airplane. Assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick was also killed. Some members of the band and crew survived the crash, and in 1987 the band was reconstituted by Johnnie Van Zant, the brother of deceased band leader Ronnie.
10. John F. Kennedy, Jr., Presidential Son.
The Kennedy family certainly seems to be somewhat star-crossed, with tragedy never far behind. Not only were President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy the victims of assassination, their older brother Joe Kennedy was killed while serving dangerous duty in World War II. Their sister suffered a botched lobotomy operation and little brother Senator Edward Kennedy was the driver in a notorious motor vehicle accident in which a young woman died. JFK, Jr., known in the press (though never by his family) as “John-John,” was piloting a private plane, a Piper Saratoga, with his wife and sister-in-law as passengers in 1999, leaving from New Jersey and heading to Massachusetts for a wedding. The plane went down over the Atlantic Ocean and was later recovered along with the bodies of the 3 victims by US Navy divers. Junior was only 38 years old when he died. John Junior had been the only child ever born to a President elect of the United States and had worked as a journalist, lawyer and publisher. His image is immortalized in a photograph of him saluting the casket of his murdered father.
Question for students (and subscribers): What aircraft crash victim do you miss the most? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Negroni, Christine. The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Air Disasters. Penguin Books, 2016.
Odom, Gene, and Frank Dorman. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock. Three Rivers Press, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of French aviation pioneer Eugène Lefebvre in his airplane, at the Grande Semaine d’Aviation at Reims, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a48934. This work is from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.