As the legend surrounding Prince’s shocking death in April 2016 continues to grow and evolve, one particularly grim chapter of the saga is beginning to come into focus. Mere days before the end of his life, the reclusive musician was flying in a private jet from Atlanta back to Paisley Park in Minnesota when he suddenly became unconscious. The plane had to make an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, where Prince was rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment. Besides the pilot, only two other people were with Prince during that traumatic flight: Kirk Johnson, a longtime Prince friend and aide, and singer Judith Hill, whom Prince had been mentoring for the last two years. Hill now tells her strange and fascinating story to New York Times reporter Melena Ryzik for an article called “I Was On That Fateful Flight With Prince.” It offers some insight not only into the great musician’s final days but also into the projects that consumed his attention in the last stage of his life.
Hill, a Los Angeles-born vocalist and pianist who appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, was likely the last significant musical protégée of Prince’s career. Impressed by her talent, he sang and played on her debut solo album and helped her negotiate business deals as well. Hill describes their relationship as “very intense” but balks at labeling it romantic. She talks about the Prince she knew, the one who could beat her at ping-pong and who would always be dressed to the nines, even for an impromptu trip to Dairy Queen. She also talks about what that terrible flight from Atlanta was like. It was Hill who recognized that the musician was unconscious and unresponsive, not merely asleep, and alerted Johnson, who subsequently alerted the pilot. “Thankfully, I happened to be looking into his face,” she said. The flight was a scary close call, but unfortunately it was the harbinger of something much worse to come.