How Did John Denver Die? Tragic Accident Explained

John Denver was one of the most successful and popular country music artists in the 1970s and had hits such as Take Me Home, Country Roads, Leaving On A Jet Plane, and Rocky Mountain High. If you’ve been wondering: how did John Denver die? Continue reading as we get into some of the tragic details of the accident that took his life below. 

John Denver - Take Me Home, Country Roads (Official Audio)

How Did John Denver Die?

February 9, 2013 – A Rutan Long-EZ home-built aircraft flying at the AERO INDIA. Image source: Sonutn, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The official cause of death for Denver was repeated blunt force trauma as a result of his plane crashing into Monterey Bay, which is located off the coast of California close to Pacific Grove. He was piloting his homemade plane, which was a Long-EZ kit plane made by Rutan at the time of the crash. 

When Did John Denver Die?

John Denver - Rocky Mountain High (Official Audio)

Denver died on October 12, 1997, at around 5:30 pm. At this time, he was still a very popular country music artist and was still touring, although he hadn’t written many commercially successful songs in the 1990s. 

How Old Was John Denver When He Died?

At the time of the plane crash, Denver was 53 years old, which is what made his death so shocking to both the music community and his fans all over the world. 

Was Anyone Else In The Plane With John Denver When He Died?

There were no other occupants in the experimental aircraft with Denver at the time of the crash. 

Was John Denver an Experienced Pilot?

July 2006 – Learjet 45 of Gama Aviation (Registration G-GMAA) at Farnborough, England, United Kingdom. Image source: MilborneOne at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Denver’s passions was flying, and he had more than 2,700 hours flying aircraft. He was a successful pilot and had experience and ratings for multi-engine aircraft, single-engine aircraft, and even ratings for a Learjet and instrument. 

Did John Denver Fly The Kit Plane Before The Day He Died? 

Denver had taken out the homemade kit plane only one time before he died, and it wasn’t for very long. The day before he died, he took this homemade kit Long-EZ plane out for what was called a checkout flight. It was about a 30-minute flight, and everything seemed to be alright with the aircraft at that time. 

What Caused John Denver’s Plane To Crash?

Denver may have been an experienced pilot with specific aircraft, but he was not experienced in the kit plane he was operating at the time of the crash according to the National Transportation Safety Board, also known as the NTSB, when they released the report on the crash. 

One of the main contributing factors to the crash was that he was unable to switch his fuel tanks while in flight. He had been performing various landings and takeoff practice runs before his final flight, which had taken quite a bit of the fuel that this kit plane had.

Unlike a lot of other aircraft, this particular one had a configuration that was different for selecting which fuel tank to engage. Additionally, the handle that was supposed to be between his legs to switch fuel tanks had been moved by the kit builder to a higher position above the left shoulder of the pilot. 

October 26, 2016 – Cockpit. Image source: Mike-fiesta, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the NTSB, when looking at the controls, you could not see the fuel gauge because it had been moved to behind the seat of the pilot, which meant he was unable to see he was running low on fuel. When the aircraft mechanic was later interviewed, he talked about how Denver felt that the fuel selector button was not easily accessible, and it was also hard to turn the valve.

The mechanic tried to move the handle around a little but when strapped into the pilot’s chair, it was still not accessible. Therefore, when Denver wanted to switch the fuel tank, he would have to move at a 90-degree angle, which meant his right foot was naturally hitting the right rudder to keep his balance. The foot being on the rudder meant the aircraft would pitch and lean its nose more to the right. 

June 2, 2016 – Cockpit Magister. Image source: Billyhill, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before his final flight, he had known how much fuel was in the tanks since he asked the mechanic, and he declined the offer to add more fuel to the aircraft saying he would only be in the air for around an hour and felt he didn’t need more fuel. However, during the flight, he did move his body in an effort to hit the fuel tank valve switch, which led his foot to press down on the rudder, and this is when he lost control of the plane and it crashed. 

The final part of the report from the NTSB listed factors beyond his inability to refuel and losing control of the plane that contributed to the crash and Denver’s death. The report found that he didn’t have proper training on how to transition with that particular homemade plane, and the builder himself was also at fault to an extent for moving the fuel selector valve to a location that made it nearly impossible for the pilot to reach. 

Did John Denver Have a Drinking Problem?

February 11, 2020 – Drinks/Alcohol. Image source: guncel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Denver did suffer from a drinking problem in the years leading up to his death and had been drinking pretty heavily in the 1980s and even worse into the 1990s. The progressively worse drinking led his career to suffer as a result. He ended up divorced twice by the 1990s and that increased his consumption of alcohol. Sadly, he was arrested more than once in the 1990s for driving under the influence of alcohol

Did John Denver Have a Pilot’s License When He Died?

At the time that Denver died, he did not have a pilot’s license because it had been revoked in 1996 because of his failure to stay sober. His medical certification had been revoked by the FAA after they discovered he was still drinking and not maintaining his sobriety. 

Was John Denver Drinking Before His Plane Crashed?

While Denver may have had a major drinking problem, after the autopsy was completed, it was discovered he was not drinking before the plane crashed. In fact, no drugs or alcohol were in his system at the time of the crash, so alcohol did not play a role in his death or decision-making that day. 

What Were John Denver’s Final Words?

January 15, 2006 – A transponder. Image source: Meggar at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the National Transportation Safety Board concluded its report of the plane crash, it was revealed that Denver’s final words before he crashed were “Do you have it now?” At that time, he was trying to adjust his transponder, and he never indicated through the radio that there was an emergency.

Was John Denver Involved In Previous Airplane Crashes?

September 9, 2018 – Biplane. Image source: 29656935087 (photos · photo sets), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There was one report in April 1989 of Denver being in another plane crash, although this one was the result of wind. He was out in a 1931 biplane he owned on the runway at the Holbrook Municipal Airport when the wind spun his plane around and was severely damaged as a result. However, he did not suffer any injuries as a result of this accident, and it was not related to anything that he was doing since it was the result of the big gust of wind. 

Was John Denver Married When He Died?

Denver was not married at the time of his death in 1997 but had been married twice before in his life. His first marriage to Annie Martell lasted from 1967 to 1982, and he was remarried in 1988 to Cassandra Delaney, but they divorced in 1993. 

Did John Denver Have Kids?

Denver had adopted two children with his first wife, and it was a boy named Zachary John and a little girl named Anna Kate. When he got married to Delaney, they had a biological daughter together named Jesse Belle. So, he had three children throughout his life, with two being adopted and one being biological. 

Was A Funeral Held For John Denver?

May 27, 1995 – John Denver during PBS Memorial Day celebration. Image source: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A funeral was held for Denver on October 17, 1997, at the Faith Presbyterian Church which is located in Aurora, Colorado. This was a church that his mother had been a member of since the 1970s. Pastor Les Felker officiated the event, and he was an Air Force Chaplain. 

Not only were family members and friends in attendance for the funeral, but hundreds of fans also attended the service. The main room for the funeral held about 1,000 people, and there were two other rooms that were opened up so that the funeral service could be watched and listened to from there, which could also hold about 1,000 more people.

September 16, 2018 – The John Denver Sanctuary in Rio Grande Park, Aspen, Colorado. Image source: Whoisjohngalt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another service was held the next day in Aspen, Colorado, which was a place he loved to visit and also considered to be his home. Tom Crum, one of his friends, spoke at the funeral and talked about how Denver’s life should be celebrated because he was a wonderful person and had a great presence. He also said he was so happy Denver was on this Earth and so sorry that he died.

Was John Denver Buried?

July 16, 2007 – The Rocky Mountains as seen from the Scenic Area along I-70 near Copper Mountain in Summit County, Colorado. Image source: Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Denver was not buried, so there was no coffin at the funeral ceremony. He was cremated, and his ashes were spread out throughout the Rocky Mountains

How Much Was John Denver Worth When He Died?

The estimated value of his estate when he died was about $60 million

Who Inherited John Denver’s Estate?

It took several years for his estate to be settled because he did not have a will, so the California court system appointed Martell, his ex-wife, as the administrator of his estate. Since he died in California, the estate was divided under California law, which said that all separate and community property would go to his children. 

You can buy John Denver's Aspen home if you've got $11 million

Therefore, his two adult children received part of his estate while Jessee Belle, who was eight when Denver died, would have her part placed in a trust until she was of legal age. He had also set up trusts for people in his family, including $7 million placed in trusts for each of his three children, his ex-wife Martell, his mother, and another one for his father.


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