Roger Peterson, all of 21 years of age, was a pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa. He had earned his commercial pilot's licence the year before, and had married his high school sweetheart in September 1958 and settled down near his place of work.
On February 2, he was approached by the manager of the local dance hall to fly someone to Fargo, North Dakota, in a 1947 single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. It turned out to be Buddy Holly, who was sick of the tour bus and wanted to get to Fargo faster in order to do his laundry. He'd run out of clean undershirts, socks, and underwear.
Holly had good reason to be dissatisfied with the bus (laundry notwithstanding). It was a 24-city tour lasting just three weeks, and the bookings had been made in such a way that there was sometimes hundreds of miles of driving between each. Shortly into the tour the bus's heating system broke, making the bus rides a torment.
The deal was set for $36 per person, the plane holding three people in addition to the pilot. When the musicians arrived at the airport Peterson learned that the other two passengers were to be Richie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.
How they ended up on the plane was pure chance. Holly's two bandmates, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, were to fly with him, but Valens had never flown on a small plane before and asked Allsup for the seat. Allsup agreed to flip a coin for his seat, and Valens won the toss. Meanwhile Richardson had developed the flu and asked Jennings for his seat, to which Jennings kindly agreed. When Holly found out Jennings had given his seat up, he joked "Well, I hope your ole bus freezes up!", to which Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your damn plane crashes!"
In fact Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, the fourth headliner on the tour, had been approached to join the flight, but couldn't bring himself to pay $36 for it. He had heard his parents argue for years over their rent of $36, and couldn't bring himself to pay a whole month's rent for a plane ride.
At 1am February 3 the plane took off in a light snowstorm. The owner, Jerry Dwyer, said later that he could see the lights of the plane start to descend 5 minutes into the air, but thought it was an illusion caused by the curvature of the earth.
Peterson was supposed to radio in and file his flight plan from the air but never did. Dwyer tried to contact him repeatedly and unsuccessfully, and reported the plane missing at 3:30am. The next morning he took off to fly the intended rout, and quickly spotted some wreckage in a cornfield five miles away.
Investigations showed that the plane was pointing down and banked to the right when it hit the ground at about 170mph. It cartwheeled and skidded across the ground and finally piled against a fence at the edge of the property. All four were dead, Peterson inside the plane, the three passengers thrown outside. From the extent of their injuries it was obvious they had been killed instantly. The conclusions of the Civil Aeronautics Board about the crash were as follows:
At night, with an overcast sky, snow falling, no definite horizon, and a proposed flight over a sparsely settled area with an absence of ground lights, a requirement for control of the aircraft solely by reference to flight instruments can be predicated with virtual certainty...Because of fluctuation of the rate instruments caused by gusty winds [the pilot] would have been forced to concentrate and rely greatly on the attitude gyro, an instrument with which he was not completely familiar. The pitch display of this instrument is the reverse of the instrument he was accustomed to; therefore, he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn. The fact that the aircraft struck the ground in a steep turn but with the nose lowered only slightly, indicates that some control was being effected at the time. The weather briefing supplied to the pilot was seriously inadequate in that it failed to even mention adverse flying conditions which should have been highlighted.
Last year (March 2007) Richardson's son decided to exhume his father for a number of reasons. He wanted to move both his parents' bodies to another part of the cemetery. And he wanted to see his dad: he had never seen him, having been born three months after his death. This was done, there is a slide show about it here.
Here's The Big Bopper singing Chantilly Lace. He's great!
Sources: Wikipedia, findagrave.com