If Larry Ray Stewart has one regret about his vintage Cessna 172, it is replacing the upholstery covering the seat once occupied by a student pilot who also happened to be one of the most famous figures in the history of rock and roll music.
Stewart, a retired Alabama lawyer, had no idea when he had that work done that the Skyhawk, which was first sold to a flight school in Lubbock, Texas, in 1957, had been used twice by Buddy Holly, giving this particular Cessna 172, one specimen of the most-produced airplane in history, a unique backstory and a provenance that Stewart and his business partner hope will fetch a six-figure sum.
So far, that has not worked out.
Stewart’s partner in the sale of the Cessna, being offered along with Buddy Holly’s pilot logbook, a complete set of aircraft logs, and a home movie that documents part of the story, is British musician and Buddy Holly enthusiast Lajos Spencer Polya, who told the story from the beginning in a Skype interview.
While the Skyhawk remained in service six decades after Holly's death, the connection between airplane and rock star began to come to light four years ago, when Polya launched a Facebook page dedicated to the life of Buddy Holly. Curating that page, Polya said, led to a friendship with Holly’s family, including Holly’s brother, Larry Holley. (Polya explained that Buddy Holly, born Charles Hardin Holley on Sept. 7, 1936, dropped the “e” from his surname after a record company did so accidentally. The budding star who had already opened for Elvis Presley decided to just go with that spelling.)
The pilot logbook was found tucked in a box wrapped in a tourist guide to Australia, by Holly's brother who had owned and flown a Skyhawk of his own. Larry Holley took his brother for rides that apparently lit a spark, though just how enthusiastic Buddy Holly was about flying remained a secret for decades—even from the Holley family. Particularly from his wife, who had no love of airplanes.
Biographies of Buddy Holly published to date do mention a single flight lesson taken by the young musician, based on a single receipt (for $9) from Champs Aviation in Lubbock, Texas, in business today as Hub City Aviation. What was unknown to virtually anyone before Larry Holley discovered his brother’s pilot logbook is that Holly took not just one but a total of three lessons, two of these in the Skyhawk now owned by Stewart.
“It surprised us just as much as you,” Larry Holley said in a video interview filmed Nov. 24, 2015, at Polya’s request, part of the documentation that establishes that N8556B is, in fact, the same airplane Holly secretly flew.
“It looked to me like the little stink was taking lessons on his own, with plans to surprise the family when he got his license,” Larry Holley told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in September 2016.
Polya said that Maria Elena Holly, who married the singer on Aug. 15, 1958, had already lost members of her family to airplane accidents, and would never have approved of Buddy following his brother’s footsteps into aviation. “Buddy knew how she was, so he kept it secret.”
Buddy Holly died Feb. 3, 1959, at age 22, in one of the most infamous airplane accidents in history, a crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, that also claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens (Richard Steven Valenzuela), The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.), and pilot Roger Peterson.
The existence of two of Holly’s three training flights remained hidden for six decades.
Acquiring Holly’s pilot logbook was the start of a months-long effort by Polya to track down the whereabouts of the actual aircraft Holly had trained in. Discovery of the logbook set the wheels turning, and history was about to be revised.
“I couldn’t sleep for an absolute week,” Polya recalled. He determined through a search of FAA records that the Skyhawk in which Holly took his third and final lesson, on Nov. 5, 1958, N9274B, no longer exists, but he tracked down the second Skyhawk, N8556B, in which Holly took an orientation lesson, followed by a second.
Stewart was reluctant to return Polya’s calls, at first.
“I was very skeptical,” the retired lawyer who lives near Montgomery, Alabama, recalled in a telephone interview. “I dodged him for two or three days. He was calling my law office and all my friends... I thought he was crazy.”
Once Stewart finally took the call, it did not take long for Polya to convince him that the musician and Buddy Holly buff from Essex, England, was on to something. Stewart, who keeps the Skyhawk hangared in Ocala, Florida, set to work scouring the interior for new clues, and discovered a typed checklist with a sewn border that may well have been used during the airplane’s time at the flight school in Lubbock.
“I would bet Buddy Holly held that checklist,” Stewart said. That’s more certainly true of the control yokes; the throttle and mixture controls, and other switches, most if not all likely to have been touched by the rock and roll legend. Stewart said he had decided to replace the upholstery because the seat springs were shot.
“Had I known what I know now, I would probably put it back original,” Stewart said.
Still, the airplane remains very much as it was when Holly flew it, albeit with another 3,400 hours or so added to the tach.
“It’s got about 200 hours on it now since major overhaul,” Stewart said. “It’s a nice-flying airplane. It’s in annual and everything.”
It also survived the remnants of Hurricane Irma without damage, tucked safely in a hangar, Stewart reported in a follow-up call after the storm.
“If you want to come and fly the airplane Buddy Holly took lessons in, well we can make that happen,” Stewart said brightly.
The pilot logbook went on the auction block in December at Bonhams in Los Angeles, but did not sell. Stewart said that auctioneer was reluctant to deal with an airworthy aircraft for liability reasons. A more recent auction was held on the East Coast (and online), though the lot, including aircraft, logbooks, checklist, a matchbook from Champs Aviation, and a restored home movie that was taken by Buddy Holly himself on the ramp at Champs, failed to fetch the $50,000 reserve, much less the hoped-for auction estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.