‘He was a great pilot’: John Denver’s friend recalls singer’s tragic death

John Denver flew a Long-EZ two-seater canard plane, similar to this one pictured right. Source: Getty (left).

He performed with legendary musician John Denver for almost two decades right up until his tragic death in 1997, and now former band member Jim Horn has opened up about the devastating moment he first heard of his friend’s death – and how he struggled to believe it had really happened.

Country music star Denver died in 1997 after the small experimental plane he was piloting nose-dived into the water at Monterey Bay, California, killing him instantly.

The ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ and ‘Annie’s Song’ star had been an expert pilot for years prior to the accident and had 2,700 hours of experience in a series of aircrafts, so the news was met with complete shock by his closest friends and family – as well as his millions of fans around the world.

Now, speaking in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60, his close friend Horn has revealed he struggled to believe the news when he first heard it – having flown with Denver previously and remarking on what a “great pilot” he was.

Recalling the moment he first found out, Horn said: “I was at a restaurant and some people met me for dinner and told me that John had just died, he’d crashed in the small plane he had in California, into the ocean. I went, ‘No, no, no that can’t be. He can fly 747’s, he was a great pilot’.”

Jim Horn performed with John Denver for almost two decades. Source: Getty.
Jim Horn performed with John Denver for almost two decades. Source: Getty.

According to multiple reports at the time of the crash, Denver gave no indication of an emergency when he radioed the Monterey airport control tower just moments before he lost signal. He had been practicing touch-and-go landings at the time.

A post-accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found the most likely cause of the accident was Denver’s inability to switch fuel tanks during flight, due to a new set-up inside.

Struggling to comprehend it, Horn shed some light on what he himself believes happened, saying: “It was one of those silly little planes that they were trying to design and finish all the different things on, that weren’t quite finished, and he’d turned around to change the gas from one side to the other, and that’s when he must have done something with his feet or something, because the plane went straight down they said.”

He added: “It was not the way for John to go, because we’d probably still be playing concerts together now. We were very close.”

Horn had the privilege of seeing Denver in full pilot mode himself, after being invited along by the singer on one of his private flights previously. In fact, he even got the chance to try taking the controls himself – something he described as being “like a Disney movie”.

“I had to wear the goggles, mask, have a parachute on, it was like a Disney ride!” he recalled. “I got to fly the plane myself. He was behind me and let me take control, it was really a lot of fun.”

Horn will share that story plus plenty of funny memories when he takes to the stage later this month in Australia in ‘The John Denver Celebration Concert’, where Denver’s former band members will share their favourite moments with the singer – all while performing some of his most well known hits with a screen showing the singer performing above them.

“He and I were so close that we’d do a lot of stuff together,” Horn revealed. 

Over the years, both he and Denver began to share a love of curries and Horn revealed they often enjoyed late night dinners together, staying as long as three hours in a curry restaurant talking and laughing after their shows.

Recalling another memory, Horn said: “We were so close that my wife and I got married in Windstar, Aspen, where John built his place, and we married outside with the mountains behind us – it was a beautiful wedding.”

He added: “I’m always thinking about him and wanting to play his music, recording his music, so everyone will keep hearing it and never let it go. It’s never going to die. It will always be around.

“When I first joined him, he told me, ‘Now, if you hear any sounds on any of your instruments, go ahead and play them’. He’d turn around and smile at me and give me the thumbs up, so I’d know I’d done well.”

Denver was married to his first wife Anne Martell from 1967 to 1982, even writing his hit song ‘Annie’s Song’ about her, and Horn revealed while Denver went on to marry again, he never got over his love for his first wife.

“He loved singing ‘Annie’s Song’, he still loved Annie and called her on her birthday every year. When he sang it, you knew he was thinking about her,” he revealed. “I don’t think that love ever died. He was always thinking about her.”

To buy tickets to ‘The John Denver Celebration Concert’, which runs from December 14 to December 23, visit the official tour website here.

Are you a fan of John Denver’s music? Which is your favourite of his songs?

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