Friday, March 19, 2010

1982: Randy Rhoads R.I.P.

On this day in 1982, the world lost Randy Rhoads, Ozzy Osbourne’s wunderkind guitarist, at the age of 25.

Riding high on the success of his first two solo albums, “Blizzard Of Ozz” and “Diary Of A Madman,” Ozzy’s tour stopped in Knoxville, TN for a show at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum on March 18, 1982. It was to be Randy Rhoads’ final performance.

Heading to Orlando for a festival performance opening for Foreigner at “Rock Super Bowl XIV” on the 20th, the band drove through the night, reportedly stopping for a break and to repair some parts on the tour bus. The entourage pulled into Leesburg, Florida, on property owned by Jerry Calhoun, owner of Florida Coach. There were two houses on site: one belonged to Calhoun; the other, to Ozzy tour bus driver Andrew Aycock.

To say that Aycock was a bit on edge would be an understatement: his ex-wife appeared at one of the band’s shows and insisted on accompanying the band to Florida. Reports suggest the two argued at the front of the bus through the night and, with cocaine in his system, the driver was likely already frazzled enough – none of which impressed Ozzy or then-girlfriend (and manager) Sharon Arden.

The Leesburg property was large enough to also hold a small airstrip, which was lined with small helicopters and planes. In the early morning of the 19th, Aycock, a pilot himself, played the role of host by taking keyboardist Don Airey and tour manager Jake Duncan up for a test ride in a ’55 Beechcraft Bonanza F-35. Aycock then took a second flight up with Rhoads and hairdresser/seamstress Rachel Youngblood, which returned safely.

Fate then stepped in: Aycock talked Rhoads into going up for another flight. Despite his fear of flying, Randy agreed, for two reasons: Youngblood had a heart condition, so the pilot said he wouldn’t do anything risky with her along for the trip, and, because Rhoads wanted to take some aerial shots from the plane.

While most of the band and crew were asleep in the tour buses, the Bonanza flew overhead a few times at treetop level, 'buzzing' the buses below. One theory, about what happened next, suggests that the 'buzzing' was a move on the cocaine-fueled Aycock’s part to hit his ex-wife, who was standing a few yards from one of the buses. On the fourth fly-by – at approximately 140-180 mph and only about 10 feet above the ground - the left wing clipped the back end of the bus and the plane went through a pine tree before crashing into a nearby house, erupting in flames.

Rhoads, Youngblood (58) and Aycock (36) died instantly.

Ozzy, Sharon and others had been sleeping in their buses and awoke to the sound of the crash. It was approximately 10:00 a.m. Running to the burning house, Ozzy learned that a deaf man was living there; Ozzy heroically raced in and pulled him to safety.

An autopsy later revealed traces of cocaine in Aycocks’ system; Rhoads only had nicotine in his. The NTSB also found Aycock’s medical certificate had expired and that his biennial flight review (required for all pilots) was overdue.

In former Ozzy bassist Rudy Sarzo’s autobiography, “Off The Rails,” he states that Airey and drummer Tommy Aldridge witnessed the crash firsthand; they even suggested seeing a struggle in the cockpit between Aycock and Rhoads right before the incident. Was Randy trying to stop the madness? In his wired state, was Aycock intentionally trying to scare his ex-wife (or worse)? We’ll never know.

An avid student of the guitar, Rhoads continued to take lessons while on the road with Ozzy, and was reportedly considering leaving the band to earn a degree in classical guitar at UCLA.