Tragedy struck Lynryd Skynyrd just three days after the group released its fifth album and was seemingly on the brink of unprecedented popular acclaim. On October 20, 1977, a plane crash killed three members of the group, including its guiding light, Ronnie Van Zant. What caused Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane to crash? Even in the 21st century, despite an official investigation and opinion that characterised the crash as the result of pilot error, the circumstances and decisions that led to the aircraft's unusual demise remain unknown.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is considered to have one of the most gruesome band histories because they lost several people in the aerial accident. Who died in the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash? Of the 24 passengers who boarded the ill-fated flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, three members of the band were killed. The death of Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie Gains, along with the aftermath of the tragedy, essentially destroyed one of the most unique voices of American rock and roll. Listed here are the facts behind the infamous plane crash that ended Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd Was On Tour For Their Fifth Album And It Was Their Biggest To Date
1977 marked the release of Lynyrd Skynyrd's fifth album, Street Survivors. The album had just hit gold three days prior to the terrible plane crash. The band's ambitious tour for their latest album had just started and they decided to lease a twin prop plane to reach each destination.
Lynyrd Skynyrd And Aerosmith Were Both Interested In The Same Plane, But Aerosmith Cited Safety Concerns And Backed Out
Prior to Lynyrd Skynyrd leasing their twin prop, a Convair CV-240, Aerosmith was also interested in the same plane. The band's autobiography tells the story of their management examining the aircraft and being underwhelmed.
When they also observed the pilot and co-pilot exchanging a bottle of Jack Daniel's during the inspection, they were convinced that both the Convair and its crew were not up to their standards. This was in the spring of 1977, only months before Skynyrd's tragic flight.
48 Hours Prior To The Crash, The Band Was Flying On The Plane When They Saw Sparks Shoot Out Of The Engine
On October 18, 1977, Lynryd Skynyrd performed in Lakeland, Florida, and then flew to Greenville, South Carolina, for their show on October 19, 1977. En route, several band members were alarmed when they saw 10-foot streams of sparks and flames shooting out of the right engine of the prop plane.
Although the plane landed safely, following the concert, several members of the band and crew told lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant that they would not continue the tour unless the plane was replaced. Backup vocalist Cassie Gaines even made a reservation on a commercial flight to the next tour stop, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Several Band Members Did Not Want To Fly On The Convair, But They Were Overruled By Band Leader Ronnie Van Zant
Van Zant was more than just the band's main song writer and central figure. Known as "Papa Ronnie" when sober, he was a thoughtful, patriarchal influence who had held the band together through earlier, leaner times. While intoxicated, he was an intimidating, violent individual who once knocked out the two front teeth of keyboard player Billy Powell (he felt Powell overextended his "Free Bird" piano intro). He had even slashed the hands of Gary Rossington, his best friend and guitarist, with a broken beer bottle.
Getting a new plane meant cancelling tour dates, which was something Van Zant wouldn't even consider. He also appealed to the band's pride by saying that they were scheduled to appear on the campus of LSU, headlining in front of a crowd of at least 10,000 fans. This was not some venue in New York or Chicago, it was in the Deep South, in front of their most loyal fan base. Typical of a man who repeatedly said he would never make it to the age of 30, Van Zant got on the plane, telling Cassie Gaines, "If your time is up, your time is up."
Initially, The Flight Was Uneventful, But Suddenly, Problems Occurred With The Right Engine
Reluctantly, the rest of the band and Skynyrd entourage boarded the plane. A pilot, co-pilot, and twenty four total passengers clambered onto the forty-seat prop plane. The aircraft's interior was jammed with equipment, instruments, and luggage. Most reluctant of all, backup singer Cassie Gaines cancelled her plane reservation and also got on, not wanting to desert her brother, guitarist Steve Gaines.
Marc Frank, a 24-year-old roadie with the band, later recalled that there was a great deal of apprehension at the beginning of the flight. But the plane took off without a problem, and two and a half hours transpired without incident. The entourage relaxed and some even started playing poker. Ronnie Van Zant slept on the floor in the rear aisle. But then, Frank noticed gasoline spraying out of the right engine. He wondered if the pilots were merely trying to transfer fuel from one engine to the other.
Suddenly, the right engine propeller stopped and the plane began to jerk violently. The pilots had just radioed Houston Air Traffic Control, sensing they had a fuel issue. They requested landing vectors for the nearest airport, a tiny airstrip in McComb, Mississippi.
The Left Propeller Also Suddenly Stopped, Thousands Of Feet In The Air
Pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray were already aware of a fuel issue and there is speculation that they were attempting to transfer oil from one engine to the other but instead mistakenly jettisoned whatever remaining fuel they had, causing the left engine to also shut off, a major issue at 9,000 feet in the air.
Band members Artimus Pyle and Billy Powell entered the cockpit when one of the pilots, his eyes distorted with fear, told them to get back to their seats and have everyone strap in. Pyle woke up Ronnie Van Zant and informed him of the situation. Survivors would later say that the Skynyrd lead vocalist nonchalantly headed to his seat, an irritated look on his face, as if this was all just another bad day at the office. Ronnie Van Zant was 87 days shy of his 30th birthday.
The Plane Glided For Several Thousand Terrifying Feet
The pilots radioed Houston at 6:42 PM. They were told that they had passed the airstrip at McComb and would have to try to turn the plane around. To attempt this, Marc Frank said the pilots made a frightening 180-degree turn with both wings perpendicular to the ground. One minute he could hear the plane’s engines, the next just air passing over the aircraft. He could hear his fellow passengers quietly praying.
With daylight rapidly disappearing, only the treetops of a dense wilderness were visible when he looked out of the plane’s window. The aircraft was now just a few hundred feet above the ground. The pilots were desperately looking for some open area or farmland to try to bring the plane down as safely as possible as they were still eight miles from the airport. They never found any - the plane would be forced to land in the middle of a Mississippi swamp.
It finally scraped the treetops and then descended into a heavily wooded area. Billy Powell remembers:
"We hit the trees at approximately 90 mph. It felt like being hit with baseball bats in a steel garbage can with the lid on. The tail section broke off, the cockpit broke off and buckled underneath, and both wings broke off. The fuselage turned sideways, and everybody was hurled forward.”
The Crash Scene Was Utterly Surreal
Marc Frank can still remember the sound of metal popping and scraping as the fuselage ripped open and the wings were torn off by the trees. And then silence. Another road crew member next to Frank was in bad shape and moaned, “What happened?” Frank replied, “We f*ckin’ crashed.”
Suddenly, he could hear other passengers moaning and crying for help. Three individuals were actually ambulatory, including Frank, drummer Artimus Pyle, and another road crew member, Steve Lawler. They crawled out of a hole in the tail of the fuselage and went to look for help.
In the air, while the plane was still in flight, some daylight had been visible. However, now on the ground and in the trees, it was quite dark. Still, Frank was able to make out some horrific scenes. The co-pilot was hanging in a tree, decapitated. Road manager Dean Kilpatrick was face down, a piece of aeroplane fuselage fatally protruding from his back. Cassie Gaines had been hurled from the plane and had rapidly bled to death on the ground.
As Soon As The Plane Went Down Near Tiny Gillsburg, Mississippi, Pyle Left To Find Help
Artimus Pyle had actually had the presence of mind to try to visually locate anything that looked remotely like civilisation as the plane descended. He was able to orient himself and set off towards what he thought was a local farm. Even so, it took forty-five minutes to reach the property of farmer Johnny Mote and make contact, a process that didn't initially go well.
Mote was putting out hay for his cattle when he heard what sounded like a car skidding on gravel and a loud boom. Shortly thereafter, he saw three men emerge from the woods. Soaked in blood with long hair and screaming, Mote assumed that the men were up to no good and might even be escaped convicts. He ran back to his home, told his 17-year-old wife to get down, and grabbed his shotgun. As the men came closer, Mote initially fired a warning shot until he heard Pyle yell, "Plane crash!"
Mote made the connection between the sounds and the injured men. Pyle used Mote's phone to call his wife, and Mote's spouse called the local emergency response in the largest local town, McComb, Mississippi. Still, Mote was not sure what he was dealing with as he and other neighbours remained skeptical of the bloody individuals on his front porch. Frank and Lawler were the first of the survivors taken to the hospital. Later, Pyle would claim that Johnny Mote actually shot him in the shoulder with his warning shot, but Mote denied this ever happened and subsequent photos show no evidence of the scars that would have ensued from this type of injury.
A Local Fire Department Chief Was The First To The Crash Site
The first individual to reach the crash site was Jamie Wall of the Gillsburg Volunteer Fire Department. He convinced Mote that a crash had actually occurred and Mote ultimately let the fireman and his brother Jeffrey onto his property. Wall used a flashlight to cross a creek and when he got to the plane, a Coast Guard helicopter had illuminated it so any forthcoming rescue units could find it.
The plane was twisted in pieces, the front part upside down. Wall saw one of the pilots, hanging from the interior of the cockpit, clearly dead. Several times in the dark, he tripped over human beings who were still alive and used a hatchet to chop away debris and remove survivors from the wreckage.
Eventually, he would be joined by hundreds of people who helped pull survivors out of the plane and walked or stretchered them through creeks and swamp to ambulances as much as a mile away. Although six people were killed, including both pilots, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, Ronnie Van Zant, and Steve and Cassie Gaines, 20 people survived the crash despite horrific injuries.
The Accident Forced An Album Cover Change And Brought Attention To A Prescient Song
The Skynyrd tour coincided with the release of Street Survivors, the band's fifth studio album. It was released only three days before the October 20th crash and featured some of the band's best material. Unfortunately, the album cover also featured a photograph of the band engulfed in flames, an unfortunate depiction that MCA Records immediately pulled.
Subsequent albums featured a plain black background. Street Survivors reached number five on Billboard's album chart and was the band's second platinum album. It was propelled by the weirdly prescient and dark "That Smell," a song that includes the lyric, "The smell of death surrounds you!"
Van Zant had previously admitted writing these lyrics to acknowledge the various car accidents and violent incidents around him. These events had led him to believe that the band was headed for some form of apocalyptic end. A 30th anniversary re-release of the album restored the original cover.
A Member Who Intuitively Left The Band Had The Same Birthday As His Deceased Replacement
Lynryd Skynyrd's first two albums were quite successful and included the signature songs "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama," which established the band as a viable act. But less successful efforts eventually created dissension. During the infamous 1975 "Torture Tour," a 90-day, 61-date enterprise, lead guitarist Ed King decided that he had had enough. He literally walked out on the band on May 27, 1975, for reasons that are still in dispute.
King acknowledges that he never really fit in with the rest of the group, who knew each other from their roots in lower middle class, Jacksonville, Florida. King was a career musician who achieved fame with the one-hit wonder band, Strawberry Alarm Clock. He achieved immortality by composing the introductory guitar riff for "Sweet Home Alabama." King's voice is also heard numerically introducing the song before Van Zant's "Turn it up!"
Van Zant uncharacteristically allowed Ed King to be included in the song credits for "Sweet Home Alabama." King was eventually replaced by Steve Gaines, one of the two band members killed on October 20, 1977. Years later, King was stunned when he visited Gaines's grave, only to find out that they shared the same birthday: September 14, 1949.
The Crash Was Only the Beginning Of Death And Tragedy For The Survivors
Because their charter plane ran out of fuel, most of the injured passengers survived a crash that normally would have burnt them to death. The official cause of the crash was released in a statement:
"The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was fuel exhaustion and total loss of power from both engines due to crew inattention to fuel supply. Contributing to the fuel exhaustion were inadequate flight planning and an engine malfunction of undetermined nature in the right engine which resulted in higher-than-normal fuel consumption."
This proved only a momentary reprieve for many of the survivors. Tragedy followed them like a ghost. Allen Collins's wife died from complications during a pregnancy in 1981. He later paralyzed himself in a subsequent car accident, which killed his girlfriend, and died of paralytic pneumonia in 1990. Original bassist Leon Wilkeson died of various substance-related issues in 2001 at the age of 49. Billy Powell died of a heart attack in 2009 at the age of 56.
Although a version of Lynyrd Skynyrd still tours in the 21st century, only Gary Rossington has any connection to the band that crashed on October 20, 1977. Litigation over use of the band's name has persisted for decades. In 2017, a lawsuit by relatives successfully prevented the release of an already-produced film about the Skynyrd plane crash.
The Skynyrd-Neil Young Controversy Possibly Prompted The Vandalism Of Ronnie Van Zant's Grave
Skynyrd's breakthrough song, "Sweet Home Alabama," mocked Neil Young with seemingly simplistic lyrics that were a response to Young's "Southern Man" and "Alabama." Although it was popularly believed, especially in the Deep South, that Ronnie Van Zant harboured hostility towards Neil Young, the song was actually more complex than it appeared.
Young also acknowledged loving the tune and even sent demo tapes of his own music that he suggested the band should record. Ronnie Van Zant routinely wore Neil Young shirts during live performances and even sported one on the cover of Street Survivors. When vandals broke into Van Zant's tomb in 2000, it was theorized that the motive was to determine if the dead singer was, as rumoured, entombed in a Neil Young shirt.
As the coffin was only removed, but not successfully opened, Van Zant's favourite cane fishing pole and black, snakeskin-festooned hat are the only definite items known to have accompanied the legendary singer to the afterlife. After this mausoleum desecration, Van Zant's remains were removed to another location, protected by tons of concrete and continuous security.