The news of John Denver’s passing sent shockwaves not just through the entertainment industry but resonated across the entire nation. John Denver, renowned for his soul-stirring songs like the 1972 anthem “Rocky Mountain High” and the beloved “Country Roads,” had been a source of joy and a generous spirit for decades.
His untimely demise came on October 12, 1997, as his plane crashed near Pacific Grove, California. At 53, the iconic country musician left behind a legacy that had not only shaped the country music scene but elevated folk music with his idyllic lyrics and acoustic melodies. Flying was another passion that Denver inherited from his father, Lt. Col. Henry John “Dutch” Deutschendorf, a U.S. Air Force test pilot.
Tragically, it was a plane crash that claimed the life of this musical legend.
On that fateful day at 5:28 Pacific daylight time, John Denver’s experimental Long-EZ plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. The National Transportation Safety Board’s 1999 report revealed that Denver’s plane had departed for a local flight from Monterey Peninsula’s runway around 5:12 in the afternoon. The pilot, Denver himself, performed three touch-and-go landings before heading west. No distress calls were made, and minutes later, he was discovered lifeless, with his airplane wrecked just 150 yards from the rocky shoreline in 30-foot water.
The Monterey County Medical Examiner’s report on October 13, 1997, cited multiple blunt force trauma as the cause of death. Despite having a suspended flying license at the time due to two drunk-driving arrests, toxicological analysis ruled out drugs and ethanol in his system.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the accident’s probable cause included inadequate pre-flight planning, low fuel, a hard-to-access gas tank switch, unmarked modifications to the homemade airplane, and Denver’s lack of total experience in maneuvering that specific type of aircraft.
Following his passing, then Colorado Governor Roy Romer ordered state flags to fly at half-mast in honor of the singer. On October 17, Pastor Les Felker, a retired Air Force member, officiated Denver’s funeral service at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado. Denver was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Rockies.
Both the Grammys and the Country Music Association Awards paid tribute to John Denver’s enduring legacy.