Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., better known as John Denver, was born on December 31, 1943. He was an American folk-pop singer/songwriter and humanitarian with a near childlike love of nature and a breezy voice. He got his big break back in 1967 while playing the rather lonely folk nightclub scene.
Peter, Paul & Mary covered one of his songs—“Leaving on a Jet Plane”—and made it a number one hit. Denver’s abilities as a tunesmith were quickly made obvious and he soon garnered a record deal. Over the following decade he became a regular on the Billboard charts with such hits as “Country Roads”, “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders”.
His aw-shucks attitude, hippie-style wire-rimmed glasses and wholesome good looks made him a natural for the era of television. He became a near fixture there performing with numerous celebrities including George Burns, Jacque Cousteau and even Kermit the Frog. Denver’s musical talents would net him the means to explore another interest—flying.
By 1997 Denver had become an experienced pilot and had moved up to a more esoteric aircraft—an experimental, fiberglass plane called the Rutan Long EZ. It included a fuel selection valve that was inside the cockpit that permitted the pilot to choose between drawing fuel from either the left or right tank.
Unfortunately, the valve was situated behind the pilot’s left shoulder and the only possible way to use it was for the pilot to actually let go of the flight controls, twist ‘round to the left and then operate the valve with his right hand. Additionally, the pilot had to brace his right foot in order to turn. This was hard to do without accidentally pressing the right rudder pedal completely down to the floor.
On the afternoon of October 12, 1997, Denver went up to practice touch-and-go landings at Monterey Airport in California. After successfully executing a couple of go-rounds, he flew down the coast. Soon after, at an altitude of approximately 500 feet, the plane’s engine began to sputter, hungry for fuel.
Denver reached around to turn the fuel valve. His foot pressed on the right rudder and the plane rolled to the right. Within a few seconds Denver, age 53, was killed when the plane was obliterated in a full-speed nosedive into Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove, California.
Denver’s body was horribly disfigured. Authorities were only able to identify his body through the use of his fingerprints taken from his prior arrests for intoxicated driving. Almost a year before the accident the Federal Aviation Administration had found out about Denver's continued drinking after his drunk driving arrests and had revoked his medical certification. The FAA required him to have at least a third-class medical certification in order to fly. Therefore Denver was actually not legally supposed to have been flying at the time of the accident. Nevertheless, an autopsy revealed no trace of alcohol or drugs in Denver's body.
Services were held on October 17, 1997 at Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado. The funeral was officiated by a retired Air Force chaplain, Pastor Les Felker. His remains were cremated. In the end, he would once more experience a “Rocky Mountain High” when his ashes were scattered at his ranch in his adopted hometown of Aspen, Colorado.
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