Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (December 31, 1943 – October 12, 1997), known professionally as John Denver, was an American singer-songwriter, record producer, actor, activist, and humanitarian, whose greatest commercial success was as a solo singer. After traveling and living in numerous locations while growing up in his military family, Denver began his music career with folk music groups during the late 1960s. Starting in the 1970s, he was one of the most popular acoustic artists of the decade and one of its best-selling artists. By 1974, he was one of America’s best-selling performers, and AllMusic has described Denver as “among the most beloved entertainers of his era”.
Denver recorded and released approximately 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed, with total sales of over 33 million records worldwide. He recorded and performed primarily with an acoustic guitar and sang about his joy in nature, his disdain for city life, his enthusiasm for music, and his relationship trials. Denver’s music appeared on a variety of charts, including country music, the Billboard Hot 100, and adult contemporary, in all earning 12 gold and four platinum albums with his signature songs “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Annie’s Song”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Calypso”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, and “Sunshine on My Shoulders”.
Denver appeared in several films and television specials during the 1970s and 1980s. He continued to record in the 1990s, also focusing on environmental issues by lending vocal support to space exploration and testifying in front of Congress in protest against censorship in music. He lived in Aspen for much of his life where he was known for his love of Colorado. In 1974, Denver was named poet laureate of the state. The Colorado state legislature also adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as one of its two state songs in 2007.
An avid pilot, Denver died at the age of 53 in a single-fatality crash while piloting his recently purchased light plane.
Denver was killed on October 12, 1997, when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane, aircraft registration number N555JD, crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California, while making a series of touch-and-go landings at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport. He was the only occupant of the aircraft. Identification was not possible using dental records so only his fingerprints confirmed the pilot was Denver. The official cause of death was multiple blunt force trauma resulting from the crash.
Denver was a pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience. He had pilot ratings for single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider and instrument. He also held a type rating in his Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft, made by someone else from a kit, and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before his accident.
Denver was not legally permitted to fly at the time of the crash. In previous years, Denver had a number of drunk driving arrests. In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration learned that Denver had failed to maintain sobriety by failing to refrain entirely from alcohol and revoked his medical certification. However, the accident was not influenced by alcohol use since an autopsy found no sign of alcohol or other drugs in Denver’s body.
Post-accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) showed that the leading cause of the accident was Denver’s inability to switch fuel tanks during flight. The quantity of fuel had been depleted during the plane’s flight to Monterey and in several brief practice takeoffs and landings Denver performed at the airport immediately prior to the final flight. His newly purchased experimental Rutan had an unusual fuel tank selector valve handle configuration. The selector valve handle had been intended by the plane’s designer to be located between the pilot’s legs. The builder instead had placed it behind the pilot’s left shoulder. The fuel gauge was also placed behind the pilot’s seat and not visible to the person at the controls. An NTSB interview with the aircraft mechanic servicing Denver’s plane revealed that he and Denver had discussed the inaccessibility of the cockpit fuel selector valve handle and its resistance to being turned.
Before the flight, Denver and the mechanic had attempted to extend the reach of the handle, using a pair of Vise-Grip pliers. However, this did not solve the problem and the pilot still could not reach the handle while strapped into his seat. NTSB officials’ post-accident investigation showed that because of the positioning of the fuel selector valves, switching fuel tanks required the pilot to turn his body 90 degrees to reach the valve. This created a natural tendency to extend one’s right foot against the right rudder pedal to support oneself while turning in the seat, which caused the aircraft to yaw (nose right) and pitch up.
The mechanic said he remarked to Denver that the fuel sight gauges were visible only to the rear cockpit occupant. Denver had asked how much fuel was shown. He told Denver there was “less than half in the right tank and less than a quarter in the left tank”. He then provided Denver with an inspection mirror so he could look over his shoulder at the fuel gauges. The mirror was later recovered in the wreckage. Denver said he would use the autopilot inflight to hold the airplane level while he turned the fuel selector valve. He turned down an offer to refuel, saying he would be flying for about an hour.
The NTSB interviewed 20 witnesses about Denver’s last flight. Six of them had seen the plane crash into the bay near Point Pinos. Four witnesses stated the aircraft was originally heading west. Five said they saw the plane in a steep bank, with four of them saying the bank was to the right (north). Twelve witnesses described seeing the aircraft in a steep nose-down descent. Witnesses estimated the plane’s altitude at between 350 and 500 feet (110 and 150 m) when heading toward the shoreline. Eight said that they heard a “pop” or “backfire”, accompanied by a reduction in the engine noise level just before the airplane crashed into the sea.
In addition to Denver’s failing to refuel and his subsequent loss of control while attempting to switch fuel tanks, the NTSB determined there were other key factors that led to the accident. Foremost among these was his inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft and the builder’s decision to locate the fuel selector handle in a difficult-to-reach location. The board issued recommendations on the requirement and enforcement of mandatory training standards for pilots operating experimental aircraft. It also emphasized the importance of mandatory ease of access to all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft.