Remembering Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1977 Plane Crash, a Southern Rock Tragedy

Lynyrd Skynyrd Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant (right) urges on guitarist Steve Gaines during a performance at Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey July 20, 1977. (AP Photo/JLS)

To say that Lynyrd Skynyrd is a staple in southern rock would be an understatement. "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" have long been considered southern anthems that have cemented the band's place as an important group in music history. Unfortunately, the band, widely considered one of the hardest working groups in the industry, had their careers cut tragically short on October 20, 1977. 

The band's album, Street Survivors, had just hit gold status only a few days after its release, and they were about to embark on the longest tour of their career. The one issue was their transportation. The plane they were leasing, a Convair 240, was literally on its last leg after 30 years in the air. The engine had even caught fire a few days before their departure which put everyone a little on edge. 

The bandmates decided that after their trip from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge for their concert at Louisiana State University, they would upgrade to a Learjet. It seemed ridiculous that after how far they had come, they were still traveling in such dumpy conditions. But due to the crumbling conditions and fear from the fire, guitarist Gary Rossington later told the Orlando Sentinel that guitarist Allen Collins did not want to get on the plane at the time. 

"He didn't want to get on that plane. He said, 'I'm not gonna get on it because it's not right.' And then Ronnie said, 'Hey, if the Lord wants you to die on this plane, when it's your time, it's your time. Let's go, man. We've got a gig to do.'"

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What Went Wrong?

Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant had long theorized that he would die young, not making it to his 30th birthday. Only 29 years old at the time, he had no idea that his words would ring true in just a few hours.

The plane malfunctions started pretty much right after takeoff. With a loud bang, the engine backfired, spewing flames as the plane continued to rise. But after reaching 12,000 feet, the passengers decided to party and enjoy their last flight in the Convair. At the back of the plane, there was a heated game of poker.

Normally, Van Zant would have been part of the game, but he was having some back pain so instead, he was laying on the floor with Honkettes member Leslie Hawkins giving him a massage. Pretty quickly, the right engine went out and the plane started running out of gas. The left engine followed and the plane panicked. 

Drummer Artimus Pyle was in the cockpit at the time and explained the reaction to the Orlando Sentinel. 

"The pilot, Walter McCreary, turned around and looked at me and said, 'Go back to the fuselage and strap yourself in,' " Pyle says. "And I could see fear. . . . I could see death in the man's eyes. He was a good pilot, but he kind of freaked a little bit. Nothing like that had ever happened to him."

After both engines went out the plane fell 4,500 feet around the Mississippi-Louisiana border. The landing was incredibly rough. The plane fell into a forest in an emergency landing that ended up ripping it to pieces in the process.

Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash

The Southern Rock Legends We Lost

The Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash took the lives of Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines, and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick as well as pilot Walter McCreary and his co-pilot William Gray.

All of the passengers suffered extreme injuries. Nearly all of the seats were ripped out of the walls of the plane, piling people on top of each other. Pyle survived the crash with broken ribs and managed to walk through the swamp with the help of a couple of others. They stumbled upon the farm belonging to a man named Johnny Mote who helped remove the injured survivors from the wreckage with the help of his neighbor, Dwain Easley.

Most of the 20 survivors were relocated to Southwest Regional Medical Center. There were countless broken bones, punctured organs, and more. Bassist Leon Wilkeson's heart even stopped beating twice on the operating table. When he came to, he claimed that he had seen Van Zant who had told him it wasn't his time yet. The only survivor able to attend Van Zant's funeral a few days later in Jacksonville was Billy Powell. 

The original album cover for Street Survivors featured the band standing amongst flames. In respect for the band members that were lost, this was pulled and replaced with the back photo which featured the group in front of a simple black background. After the significant losses, the group officially disbanded. The true cause of the crash was never determined, investigators settling on the loss of fuel as the main culprit.

The survivors would spend the next decade recovering from injuries and wondering why they survived and others didn't, and why the crash took away their careers while they were at the top of the world. They came back together for a 1987 reunion tour with Van Zant's brother, Johnny Van Zant, stepping in as lead vocalist in his brother's former spot. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd's Current Lineup

The loss of Lynyrd Skynyrd was devastating for the music world. The band had steadily been gaining momentum during the 70s. They had released 5 studio albums by the time of the crash, three of which went double platinum. But their influence lives on. The group is part of the reason Southern Rock became such a popular genre over the past 30 years and helped pave the way for future musicians.

Throughout the years, various lineups have kept Lynyrd Skynyrd alive despite the southern rock band's early tragedy.

Band members Johnny Van Zant (the younger brother of original Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant), Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke, Mark Matejka, Peter Keys, Keith Christopher and Michael Cartellone  wrapped up their Last of the Street Survivors farewell tour last year. 

Gillsburg, Mississippi recently unveiled a Lynyrd Skynyrd monument at the crash site in memory of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, Dean Kilpatrick, Walter McCreary, and William Gray.

This article was originally published in September of 2019.

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Remembering Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1977 Plane Crash, a Southern Rock Tragedy