August 18

John Denver’s Death: The Story Behind His Final Flight

The unexpected news of John Denver’s death rocked not only the entire entertainment industry but the whole nation as well. For decades, John Denver songs had given the world so much joy and generous spirit, especially known for his 1972 anthem “Rocky Mountain High” and popular song “Country Roads.” 

Denver was found dead after his plane crashed in the afternoon of October 12, 1997 near Pacific Grove, California. He was 53. 

The Close-Up

John Denver was undeniably one of the most successful country musicians of his time. Not only did the legendary artist enjoy a well-decorated career, but he also took folk music to a different height with his idyllic lyrics and acoustic sound. Aside from music, Denver also had a passion for flying, something he got from his father, Lt. Col. Henry John “Dutch” Deutschendorf, who is a U.S. Air Force test pilot.

Sadly, it was a plane crash that resulted in the demise of the country singer. 

On October 12, 1997 at 5:28 Pacific daylight time, John Denver’s experimental category, amateur-built Long-EZ plane kit, N555JD, crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove in California. According to the 1999 final report of the National Transportation Safety Board, air traffic control communications indicated that Denver’s plane departed for a local personal flight from the Monterey Peninsula’s runway around 5:12 in the afternoon. The singer, who was the pilot and only passenger, performed a total of three touch-and-go landings then departed to the west prior to the accident. 

He made no distress calls, and minutes later, he was found dead and his airplane destroyed. The wreckage was found within 150 yards from the rocky shoreline in 30-foot water. 

On October 13, 1997, the Monterey County Medical Examiner reported that the cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma. While Denver had a flying license, it was actually suspended at the time of the crash after he had been arrested twice on drunk-driving charges. But samples obtained for the toxicological analysis ruled out drugs and ethanol in his system. 

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident included Denver’s inadequate pre-flight planning and preparations, low fuel, the hard-to-access handle used to switch gas tanks, and the unmarked modifications to the homemade airplane. The Board also added that his lack of total experience in maneuvering the specific type of airplane also factored in the accident.

Posthumous Recognition

After his death, then Colorado Governor Roy Romer ordered all state flags to be on half-mast in honor of the singer. Then on October 17, his funeral service was officiated by Pastor Les Felker, a retired Air Force member, at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado. He was cremated, and his ashes were then scattered in the Rocky Mountains.

The Grammys and Country Music Association Awards also made a tribute for John Denver’s death.


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