February 18, 1998
Pilot may have had last contact with Holly's plane
AURORA, Neb. - The man who may have been the last person to make contact with the plane carrying music legend Buddy Holly says he tried frantically to help the crippled aircraft, but there was nothing he could do. "Even after all these years, it still kind of gets you," said Al Potter, 81, chairman of the Aurora, Neb., Airport Authority and still a licensed pilot. In an interview with the Globe-Gazette, Potter relived the incident that may make him the last known link to the fated 1959 flight. On Feb. 3 of that year he was employed as "sort of a flying technician" for Dunbar-Kappel, a grain equipment company based in Batavia, Ill., and was flying from Chicago to Colorado when he encountered what he thought was an ice storm over Mason City. "I heard radio traffic from a pilot who said he was in trouble," said Potter. "We were both on the same frequency as Mason City and we must have been very close to one another because I could hear him pretty well. He said he had taken on ice and was losing power. "I was above the ice and I was above him. I tried to get him to get up where I was but he said he was just barely holding his own. I tried to offer suggestions on how he could get rid of the ice. It seems like we must have talked for 10 or 15 minutes, but it's been a long time ago. I don't know how long we talked. "I know at one point he couldn't hear Mason City and Mason City couldn't hear him so I was trying to give each of them information because I could hear them both. "I remember I told him to try to increase his altitude and he said he tried but that he was losing altitude. When that happens you've probably stalled the plane and every pilot knows that when you've stalled it in a situation like that, you're probably going down," he said. Potter's account appears to conflict in parts with the official version of the crash, which makes no mention of another aircraft in the area or of a conversation between the pilot and anyone else, and says the crash occurred in a much shorter time span. According to the official Civil Aeronautics Board aircraft accident report: "A normal takeoff was made at 055 (12:55 a.m.) and the aircraft was observed to make a left 180-degree turn and climb to approximately 800 feet and then, after passing the airport to the east, to head in a northwesterly direction. "Through most of the flight the tail light of the aircraft was plainly visible to Mr. (Hubert) Dwyer, who was watching from a platform outside the tower. When about five miles from the airport, Dwyer saw the tail light of the aircraft gradually descend until out of sight. When (pilot Roger) Peterson did not report his flight plan by radio soon after takeoff, the communicator, at Mr. Dwyer's request, repeatedly tried to reach him but was unable to do so. The time was approximately 0100. "After an extensive air search, the wreckage of N 3794N was sighted in an open farm field at approximately 0935 that morning. All occupants were dead and the aircraft was demolished. The field in which the aircraft was found was level and covered with about four inches of snow." The report concludes: "The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so. "Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot's unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the attitude of the aircraft." Potter had explanations for some of the discrepancies between his recollections and the CAB report. He said he really didn't know how much time elapsed when he was talking with the pilot. "When you're in a scary situation, sometimes it seems like longer than it really was," he said. As for there being no mention of him in the CAB report, Potter said he never contacted the CAB. "I was just dumbfounded when I heard about the crash. It never occurred to me to contact anyone about it. I guess I was just so shocked," he said. Dwyer has steadfastly refused to comment about the night of the crash, and did so again when contacted with questions about Potter's connection. The plane carrying Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and piloted by Roger Peterson 21, of Clear Lake, crashed shortly after takeoff from Mason City Municipal Airport. The singers had performed at the Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on the night of Feb. 2 and were on their way to another engagement. "I had no idea who was on the plane when I was talking with them," said Potter. "When I landed in Colorado, everybody was talking about 'Did you hear Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in Iowa' and I thought: My God, that was it." Potter's account seems to refutes several rumors that have surfaced over the years - that there was a gunshot involved, and even that Holly was at the controls when the plane went down. Jerry Dwyer of Dwyer Aircraft Sales, which owned the plane carrying Holly and the other passengers, declined to comment. Potter, who has been a pilot for 62 years, believes he was talking to the pilot - and there was no mention of anything other than the ice. "I've thought about that night so many times. You feel like if you could have just reached down and pulled him up, he'd have been all right. It's something that just doesn't go away. I'll never forget it as long as I live."
Copyright John Skipper Globe-Gazette
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