Did Rock Legend Randy Rhoads Die a Victim of Pilot’s Sinister Motives?
Following a concert at Knoxville Civic Coliseum on March 18th, 1982, Ozzy Osbourne and his band, drummer Tommy Aldridge, keyboardist Don Airey, bassist Rudy Sarzo, and guitarist Randy Rhoads, boarded their tour bus for an overnight drive to Orlando, Florida, where they were scheduled to perform at “Rock Super Bowl XIV” the following night, but fate would intervene.
There were others on the bus that night, including Ozzy’s manager and future wife Sharon, cook/costume designer/makeup artist Rachel Youngblood, bus driver Andrew Aycock, and his estranged wife, among others. Aycock was attempting to reconcile with his wife and not having much luck. It’s unclear whether he was driving the bus that night, or whether he had handed off the duties to someone else, but in his autobiography “I Am Ozzy,” Osbourne alleges Aycock had been doing cocaine that night on the bus.
An air conditioning unit had been malfunctioning on the bus for some time, and the group decided to stop just outside Orlando, in Leesburg, Florida, to have it repaired at the Flying Baron Ranch owned by country singer Jerry Calhoun. The bus was one of a growing fleet owned by Calhoun, part of a transportation company for dignitaries and rock stars he had founded in 1978, and there was a landing strip and hangar on the property, too. After arriving in the early morning hours, Ozzy, Sharon, Aldridge and Sarzo chose to catch a few hours sleep on the bus. Aycock was a licensed pilot but had a lapsed medical certification which made it illegal for him to fly. Regardless, he decided to take a plane for a joyride without permission.
Aycock took a Beechcraft Bonanza from the hangar and Don Airey and tour manager Jake Duncan joined him on an uneventful flight around the property, after which Aycock landed the plane on the airstrip and offered to take another flight with other members of the entourage. There are fateful points in the history of rock, like the “Ace of Spades” moment before Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s death in a bus accident, and the Ritchie Valens “Coin Toss,” and on this occasion, Rudy Sarzo would make a chance decision that saved his life. Rhoads agreed to go on a flight with Aycock and attempted to get Sarzo to join him, but Sarzo instead chose to get a few extra winks on the bus. Rachel Youngblood agreed to accompany Aycock and Rhoads on the flight.
Aycock made several passes over the property without incident but decided to buzz the bus on his third attempt. The pilot misjudged his altitude and, with the plane banked sharply, one wing pointed toward the ground and the other skyward, came in too low. The lower wing hit the bus and broke off. The plane careened out of control, sheared off the top of a nearby tree, and crashed into the garage of Calhoun’s mansion where it burst into flames. Aycock, Youngblood and Rhoads were killed.
It’s at this point in the story that it should be mentioned there are dark theories about the circumstances surrounding the plane crash. For years there have been rumors regarding the state of mind of pilot Aycock and whether his actions were simply reckless and misguided, or something more. While most of the band members were asleep on the bus, Don Airey, who had just returned from a flight with Aycock, was awake and standing outside. In an interview with Troy Wells from a rock publication called BallBuster (the piece is now offline but was reposted at Metal Sludge and later, here) Don Airey claims to have witnessed every moment of the crash. From the interview, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
Interviewer: Forgive me, as I know this is a sensitive subject, but, I have to ask. As I understand it, you were the main witness to the accident. You were actually up in the plane just before Randy, right? Didn’t you come down just minutes before Randy & Rachel went up?
Don Airey: I think so. We went up and then came down. Then Randy went up with Rachel. That’s what happened.
Interviewer: Were you standing outside watching when it happened?
Don Airey: I saw the whole thing.
Shortly thereafter, in an attempt to clarify the pilot’s apparent motives, the interviewer drills deeper:
Interviewer: What was the drivers mindset like when you went up in the plane with him? Did you notice him being a little wacky? I guess they found coke in his system during the autopsy. Sharon and Ozzy seem to believe that because the pilot’s ex-wife was standing outside by the bus, that for a split second he saw her and wanted to “off” her and that’s why he swooped down. Does that sound even possible to you?
Don Airey: I’ll just say this one thing about this and I don’t want to say anything more. I had to give a deposition to the FAA and the guy said to me, “If it’s any comfort, this wasn’t an accident.”
Interviewer: This was the head investigator?
Don Airey: Yeah, he said, “but we can’t say anything.”
If Airey’s account is true, it’s a very serious allegation–the implication being that Aycock killed himself and two others in an attempt to either kill or frighten an ex-wife with whom he was very upset.
In the wreckage at the crash scene the badly burned bodies of Aycock, Youngblood and Rhoads were recovered, with one victim’s remains found on the ground right outside the garage, and the other two inside. Rhoads had to be identified by his jewelry, and Aycock by dental records. Toxicology tests indicated Aycock had cocaine in his system, but Rhoads had only nicotine. Airey also believes he could have easily been a victim himself.
Don Airey: I’m lucky to be here. The plane missed me by inches.
Interviewer: Were you right by the bus?
Don Airey: I was by the bus, then decided to move. When I turned around, there was a plane there.
Airey has never publicly spoken about the plane crash since the BallBuster interview, and questions remain. Was there a dark motive that caused the accident? Was Andrew Aycock simply reckless? Impaired by cocaine and lack of sleep? Or was he attempting to kill (or maybe just frighten) an ex-wife who refused to take him back?
Furthermore, did officials really tell the involved parties to keep quiet? Airey is not the only one to make the claim. Ozzy and Sharon have also claimed officials told them not to talk about the accident, and they have largely complied, with the exception of the accounts published years later in their biographies. What would be the motivation to keep quiet? Perhaps it was fear of a lawsuit by the Aycock estate, or the transportation company founded by Calhoun. Or maybe this is all post-accident speculation and flawed memories.
Whatever the truth, we know for certain that the events of March 19th, 1982 took from us one of the greatest musicians of a generation. Rest in peace, Randy Rhoads.
Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer originally from Minot, North Dakota, now residing in Fargo.