On This Day: John Denver Passed Away in 1997 in a Tragic Plane Crash

by Brianna Vacca

On this day, 24 years ago, John Denver tragically passed away in a plane crash. He may be gone, but his musical legacy will live on forever.

Think about listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” or ,”Rocky Mountain High.” What do you feel? Is it joy? Happiness? That is what John Denver wanted you to feel. He wanted joy. The environmentalist and songwriter had a calming nature in his songs sung by all generations today. There will never be another intrinsic fashion icon, outdoorsy tree hugger, and exceptional songwriter best known as John Denver.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr, the songwriter catapulted into the music scene in 1972 and remained one of the greats throughout the decade. His songs were bursting with a sense of joy at the seams and unconventional country stylistics. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” rose all the way to Number 2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1971.

As a songwriter, Denver became a Number One songwriter with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” in 1969. In addition, he released four number-one singles, “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song,” “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” and “I’m Sorry.” For his works, Denver won two GRAMMYs, one Emmy, had 15 Platinum albums, three number one albums, making him one of the most successful and renowned artists of the 1970s.

By the 1990s, Denver still toured around the country despite little commercial music success while delving into being a pilot.

What Happened to the Plane?

On October 12th, 1997, Denver was piloting a Long-EZ aircraft when it crashed off the coast at Pacific Grove, California. The singer was the only occupant onboard and was to have said to be a homebuilt aircraft. It’s said that the aircraft was relatively unknown to the singer as he recently acquired it. He presumably ran out of fuel and lost control of the plane while attempting to grab the fuel selector handle.

The National Transportation Safety Board cited the crash as “Denver’s unfamiliarity with the aircraft and his failure to have the aircraft refueled as causal factors in the accident.” It’s noted that the day prior on, October 11th, 1997, by a maintenance technician, that Denver had difficulty reaching the fuel selector handle. October 12th, the pilot completed a number of “touch-and-go” landings. He then departed out West over Monterey Bay where the crash occurred.

Upon announcing Denver’s crash, Roy Romer, Governor of Colorado, raised all flags to half-staff. For years after his untimely death, fans held commemorative concerts and tributes. Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce President Moe Ammar recalls, “I was there within five minutes when they pulled him out – when the national news was here. As much as I hated to admit it, that put Pacific Grove on the map.”

Ammar continues, “People continue to show up and go down to play his music and celebrate his life. His music is still loved, especially by the seniors and the children.”