John Denver Was Killed Due to a Deadly Design Flaw In His Experimental Aircraft

There have been some tragic celebrity deaths over the year, and airplane crashes have unfortunately claimed the lives of far too many artists. Country music star John Denver’s death occurred in one of the many plane crashes that have rocked the music world. While plane crashes in and of themselves are pretty rare occurrences, many artists are riding on much smaller aircraft that aren’t necessarily kept up to the same safety standards as larger commercial flights. 

In Denver’s case, the aircraft he was riding when that fateful crash occurred was actually operating with a completely flawed design. 

John Denver left a huge impact on country and folk music 

Denver received an acoustic guitar from his grandmother when he was just 11 years old, and that unlocked a true talent and passion in the young musician. He went to Texas Tech University and played gigs on the side, but he eventually dropped out and headed to LA to make music his primary focus. After playing with a folk band, Denver went solo in 1969. Touring without a record company behind him, he played many free shows at coffee houses and leaned heavily into the folk scene that dominated the early 1970s. 

His impressive career spanned decades. He released more than 300 songs and earned a reputation for lavish spending, including a custom-built mansion in Aspen, Colorado. By the time of his death in 1997, Denver was still a popular touring musician. He had also appeared on the big screen and had made a splash as a political activist. 

Denver died in a 1997 plane crash 

On October 12, 1997, the entertainment world was rocked to hear that Denver had died in a plane crash when the aircraft plunged into Monterey Bay on the California coastas reports. 

While plane crashes are surprisingly frequent for celebrities who often travel in small aircraft, Denver’s death was particularly tragic because of the experimental nature of the plane he was riding. Also relatively unique to his experience was that Denver was actually the pilot of his doomed flight. The Associated Press reported that “John Denver’s flying license was suspended at the time of his death in a plane crash because he had twice been arrested on drunken driving charges.”  

This led many to speculate that Denver was responsible for the error that caused the crash. However, further investigation revealed a deadly design flaw. The NTSB issued a post-crash assessment that found “the builder’s decision to locate the unmarked fuel selector handle in a difficult to access location, combined with unmarked fuel gauges was a causal factor in the accident.” Denver was likely turning to access the fuel selector valve — bafflingly located behind him. This action likely caused him to inadvertently push the right rudder, ultimately causing the crash. 

Fans mourned John Denver’s loss 

John Denver poses for a portrait in his hotel room in 1979 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
John Denver | Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Even though Denver’s peak in his career had happened many years before his death, he was still a beloved and popular musician, and his untimely death (he was only 53) hit fans hard. The artist left behind a collection of music with hits like “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Many of his songs — including the emotional “Annie’s Song” — have made their way onto film soundtracks as well.

The documentary A Song’s Best Friend: John Denver Remembered collected footage of live performances over the years and gave fans a way to remember Denver’s legacy. Tributes and memorials continue to this day, and it’s safe to say that Denver’s legacy and influence on folk and country music will not be forgotten. 

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