A Traveling Man’s Last Flight

A hint of smoke fills the cabin of the Douglas DC-3, 6,000 feet above East Texas.

Two crew and seven passengers, en route to the next show, be-bopping and energetic from previous engagements, three sold-out nights, a recently signed record contract, and the resurgence of the lead singer’s career, are unaware of the horror that lays ahead.

The plane’s owner and band’s leader is a rockabilly icon, teenage idol, television star, and a victim of his successes.

His rise and fall led him through many struggles, but the future was bright. New opportunities were certain, and at only forty-five, his life was beginning.

The passengers, concerned but not overly alarmed with N711Y’s situation, living was on their minds. Renewal and resurgence on the horizon.

Pilot and co-pilot bumble in their actions, every decision they make, as smoke drifts through the 14 seat aircraft, errors in their duties.

With the band’s future renewed, confidence is rebuilding, and his assurance of being a sober, respected, musician not just an aging teen idol.

His mind is on the future while appreciating his celebrated past of music and entertainment, millions of albums sold and memories of gold records, and starting a band as a teenager with an 18-year-old guitarist named James Burton.

N711Y, a moody machine.

Earlier that day, December 31, 1985, the passengers and crew loitered around the airport during a lengthy delay.

N711Y was having issues.

N711Y was always having issues, no cause for alarm.

These usual troubles were not accepted by all band members, who regularly voiced concern about traveling on the vintage plane.

December 31, and the air was cold.

The onboard heater, indiscriminately, blowing cold, blowing hot, overheating, a nuisance to both crew and the cold passengers in the magnesium tube.

New Years was only hours away, and a music starved crowd awaits the band to help ring in 1986.

For five decades, he entertained on radio, television, movies, and live. He was born with a pedigree for music and entertainment, a musician whose soul was tuned to Rockabilly and country roots, whose success veiled his loves and promoted Pop music and good looks.

He rose and fell but came out with a fresh look on life.

N711Y has issues but also a fascinating history.

She is a Douglas DC-3, vintage 1944. An aircraft whose history is rich as her current owners. Initially, Richard Dupont’s property and once Jerry Lee Lewis’s possession, this aircraft had taxied the rock-n-roll royalty along with the rich and famous.

Today the forty-five-year-old owner is only thirty minutes away from Love Field, in Dallas, Texas. His band and fiancé fill the plane with exuberance and merriment of the good life.

Last night his final words to the crowd were, “Rave on for me!” as he finished the band’s final song. Rave On, a Buddy Holly cover that, only posthumously, would weave irony into the story of this musician’s life.

Smoke becomes thick throughout the plane as the pilot and co-pilot radio for radar vectors to available landing strips.

As smoke fills the cockpit, radio communication becomes difficult, as the distressed pilots struggled for their words.

Choking for air, the pilot ditches the plane in a haphazard landing. Smoke turns to fire, and soon, N711Y’s fuselage is engulfed in flames.

The pilots, severely burned, escape through a window, and stumble about while the N711Y lays consumed in a fire in an East Texas farmer’s field.

Once the flames subsided, recoverers found all nine passengers’ lifeless and burnt bodies huddled around the plane’s door, a futile attempt to escape the inferno.

Today the tail of N711Y is on display in the community museum, next to Dollar General, in Del Kalb, Texas.

N711Y’s rudder was last seen at Air Salvage of Dallas.