37 Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Plane Crashes, Killing Three Band Members
Lynyrd Skynyrd had established themselves as one of the most successful rock bands of the ’70s by the time they released ‘Street Survivors‘ in October 1977. The group’s career would come to a tragic halt just three days later, on Oct. 20, 1977, when their twin engine plane went down in a swamp in Gillsburg, Miss., killing three of the band members, a tour manager and both pilots on impact.
The group had put together a string of iconic hits including ‘Free Bird,’ ‘Gimme Three Steps,’ ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ prior to the release of ‘Street Survivors.’ Anticipation for the new album was so high that it went gold within days, and Lynyrd Skynyrd embarked on the most ambitious headlining tour of their career, traveling between concert dates in their own Convair CV-300. Rock legend has it that Aerosmith had looked into renting the same plane earlier in the year, but passed on it due to concerns over both the safety of the plane, and the readiness of its crew.
Lynyrd Skynyrd were traveling from Greenville, S.C. to Baton Rouge, La. when their plane apparently ran out of fuel toward the end of the flight. The pilots attempted to land on a small air strip, but the bottom of the plane clipped some trees, and the aircraft went down in a remote stand of forest. Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were killed instantly, while the other band members and road crew suffered terrible injuries. Drummer Artimus Pyle and two crew members crawled from the wreckage and hiked through swampy woods until they finally flagged down a local farmer, who sent for help.
Following the crash and the press attention that came along with it, ‘Street Survivors’ became Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second platinum album. Out of respect for the band and their family members, MCA recalled the album’s original cover, which depicted the band members engulfed in flames. Devastated by the loss of their singer and the injuries sustained by the survivors, Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the accident, leaving the survivors to try to make their own way with varying degrees of success and failure.
The next decade would see the musicians pursuing a number of projects, including the Rossington-Collins Band, Vision, and the Allen Collins Band — none of which came anywhere close to the success of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Perhaps inevitably, the band reunited in 1987, with Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Artimus Pyle and guitarist Ed King — who had left the band two years before the crash — joined by Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny as their new lead singer.
But despite a successful reunion, tragedy and drama continued to plague the group; guitarist Allen Collins had become paralyzed after a drunk driving accident in 1986 that killed his girlfriend, and he died in 1990. Judy Van Zant Jenness and Teresa Gaines Rapp — the widows of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines — sued Skynyrd for violating an agreement they struck after the plane accident not to exploit the band’s name for profit, and as the years went on, most of the original members either left or were forced out for various reasons. Bassist Leon Wilkeson died in 2001, and keyboardist Billy Powell died in 2009. Ean Evans — who replaced Wilkeson on bass — also died in 2009, leaving Gary Rossington as the sole survivor from the original band. The group continues to tour heavily every year.