A performance that day in Saginaw, Michigan, was to be followed by a private show for IBM executives in San Diego, after which the band would immediately return to the Midwest for back-to-back gigs in Indiana – two jets were leased to shuttle them back and forth in relative comfort.
The band's original takeoff time was changed
After the singer and her then-manager-husband, Narvel Blackstock, arrived at San Diego's Lindbergh Field on March 15, road manager Jim Hammon presented the dilemma at hand: The band was likely to finish performing sometime after 10 p.m., making the rush to have everyone and everything ready to go before Lindbergh Field's 11 p.m. curfew difficult, but doable.
Blackstock suggested having the two planes move to the nearby private airport of Brown Field, which had no curfew, so the band could fly out at their leisure after the show. McEntire, hindered by a bout of bronchitis, would stay overnight and join them the following day.
It was seemingly a typical night on the road, though McEntire would later be able to recall everything down to the smallest detail. She closed out the show at the Harbor Island Sheraton Inn with her usual a cappella rendition of "Sweet Dreams," her band packing up while she was still on stage. Afterward, Hammon walked McEntire and Blackstock back to their suite, the three enjoying "the first hint of spring" on the balcony overlooking the Pacific before Hammon slipped out to join the rest at the airport.
The crash was described as a 'huge ball of fire'
At about 2 a.m., McEntire was jolted awake by the telephone – it was their private pilot, Roger Woolsey, who begged Blackstock to come to his room.
Once there, the pilot relayed an ominous report: He had left the band and traveling crew at the airport, ready to fly off in the two jets and was driving back to the hotel when he saw "this huge ball of fire" in the rearview mirror. A phone call confirmed that a plane did crash, though it would be an agonizing wait to find out more details.
Eventually, their worst fears were realized with the confirmation that the ill-fated plane was one of their own. Hammon, keyboardist and bandleader Kirk Cappello, fellow keyboardist Joey Cigainero, drummer Tony Saputo, guitarists Michael Thomas and Chris Austin, bassist Terry Jackson and backup singer Paula Kaye Evans, as well as the two pilots, Donald Holmes and Christopher Hollinger, were all dead.
The pilots were attempting to fly through an unfamiliar area
Through reports filed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), McEntire was eventually able to piece together what happened.
Holmes, the main pilot, had called an FAA service specialist to file a flight plan and inquire how long he would have to wait. He was told he could take off immediately if he used "visual flight rules," requiring him to be responsible for knowing the terrain.
Holmes called back twice more, mainly to make sure he wouldn't cross into the complex map of controlled air space in the region. During the final conversation, he received confirmation that it was fine to direct the plane northeast and remain below 3,000 feet.
At about 1:45 a.m., a few minutes after takeoff, the jet was flying at 3,300 feet when the left wing clipped an outcropping of 3,500-foot Otay Mountain, sending it cartwheeling into the rocky peak with a massive explosion.
Some newspapers, like the Los Angeles Times, had accounts of rainy and windy weather in the vicinity of Otay Mountain, though the National Weather Service reported clear conditions. Ultimately the two pilots were faulted in the official NTSB report for being unfamiliar with the area, with the FAA specialist also drawing blame for his directions prior to takeoff.
McEntire overcame the tragedy but remained haunted by its memory
In the aftermath, McEntire canceled all gigs for the foreseeable future, but she soon realized she would sink into despondency with nothing to do and announced she was returning to work. As originally scheduled, she performed at the Academy Awards on March 25, just nine days after the crash.
Finding replacement musicians to play with surviving saxophonist Joe McGlohon and steel guitarist Pete Finney – both on the other plane – brought logistical complications to an already difficult time. Fortunately, Dolly Parton graciously let McEntire have full use of her bandleader, Gary Smith, who leaned on his contacts to pull together a group.
To her credit, McEntire recovered and found a way to thrive professionally in the face of tragedy. She poured her grief into the critically acclaimed album For My Broken Heart later that year, and went on to win the second Grammy of her career in 1994. By the following decade, she had completed the transition from "Queen of Country" to full-blown celebrity with the launch of her hit sitcom, Reba.
Still, the personal scars never fully faded. She broke down while discussing the topic with Oprah Winfrey in 2012, noting, "I don't guess it ever quits hurting."
In March 2016, on the 25th anniversary of the dark day, McEntire showed that the memory of her former bandmates remained close at hand by posting pictures of her visit to the crash site on social media, captioned with: "I feel in my heart that they know we still miss them so much."