Ronnie Van Zant’s bandmates were anxious as they prepared to board their leased plane at Greenville, South Carolina’s Downtown Airport on the afternoon of October 20th, 1977. And they had good reason to be: Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s rickety Convair 240, pushing 30 years old, was obviously past its prime. “We were flying in a plane that looked like it belonged to the Clampett family,” drummer Artimus Pyle later said. The 10-foot flames seen shooting out of the right engine two days earlier had done little to inspire anyone’s confidence. The scary incident convinced the group that they needed to upgrade their vehicle to something befitting their status as one of the biggest acts in music. Their latest album, Street Survivors, had gone gold upon its release three days earlier, and the first five dates of the accompanying tour had been met with rapturous crowds throughout their native Southland. The ambitious trek, their largest to date, would see the band achieve its dream of playing New York’s Madison Square Garden. Surely they needed something better than a bucket of bolts to shuttle them there?
After making the 600-mile trip from Greenville to Baton Rouge, where they were due to play the following night at Louisiana State University, Lynyrd Skynyrd planned to acquire a Learjet, the air chariot of choice for the Seventies rock elite. Still, one final hop on the Convair felt like one too many for most in their entourage. “Our wives, everyone were afraid for us to get on this thing, but we didn’t know any better,” keyboardist Billy Powell said on a 1997 episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. Cassie Gaines, a member of the backing vocal trio known as the Honkettes and sister of guitarist Steve Gaines, was so petrified that she nearly squeezed in the band’s cramped equipment truck until she was reluctantly persuaded to board the aircraft. Guitarist Allen Collins was equally apprehensive. “He didn’t want to get on that plane,” Gary Rossington told the Orlando Sentinel in 1988. “He said, ‘I’m not gonna get on it because it’s not right.'” But the band’s frontman remained almost eerily calm. “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,'” remembers Rossington.
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Forty years later, his words resonate like a dare to the gods. Less than three hours later the twin-engine would plummet from the sky and into the darkened swamps of Gillsburg, Mississippi, claiming the lives of Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray Jr. The 20 survivors endured shattered bones, torn flesh, lengthy hospitalizations and grueling rehabilitations. While their bodies recovered, they’d never again be reunited with the voice that made songs like “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” perennial anthems of Southern rock.
Many in the band’s circle believe Van Zant had a premonition of his fate. On numerous occasions he proclaimed that he would never reach his 30th birthday. “Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he’d never live to see 30, and that he was going to go out with his boots on – in other words, on the road,” recalled Pyle on Behind the Music. “Of course I said, ‘Ronnie, don’t talk like that,’ but the man knew his destiny.” On October 20th, he was 87 days from his limit. “When I heard that there had been a plane crash, I just knew Ronnie was one of the ones that didn’t make it,” the singer’s widow Judy Van Zant Jenness told Team Rock’s Jaan Uhelszki in 2016. “He told me so many times that I realized that he really knew what he was talking about.” Even his father, the late Lacy Van Zant, boasted of Ronnie’s “second sight.”
A feeling of impending doom carried over into his music, particularly the Street Survivors track “That Smell.” Written as a stern warning after Rossington wrapped his brand new Ford Torino around a tree during a substance-fueled joyride, the foreboding “smell of death surrounds you” refrain provides a glimpse into Van Zant’s unsettled psyche. “I had a creepy feeling things were going against us, so I thought I’d write a morbid song,” he said three months before the crash. It would be one of the last songs he ever wrote.
Van Zant loathed flying, and the ramshackle plane contributed to his feeling of malaise. A string of rowdy incidents on previous chartered flights – including an alleged attempt to toss a roadie out from an altitude of 13,000 feet – had ensured that Lynyrd Skynyrd were unwelcome on most private airlines, so it fell to the band’s manager, Peter Rudge, to obtain a vehicle of their own where they could be free to misbehave. He was offered the Convair 240, registration number N55VM, by the L&J Company of Addison, Texas. Manufactured in 1947, it was the third of its kind ever built. Powered by a pair of counter-rotating Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, the craft was essentially an antique, with 29,000 flight miles under its wings. Aerosmith had briefly hired the very same plane earlier that year, but their assistant chief of flight operations, Zunk Buker, questioned the vehicle’s flight worthiness. He ultimately backed out after claiming that he caught McCreary and Gray “smoking and passing around an open bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the cockpit.”
Rudge witnessed no such incidents, and leased the plane at a rock bottom price: three payments of $5,000. Rather than appreciate the savings, the band largely viewed it as a downgrade from their last ride. “It was like getting out of a limo and into some junker car,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sound engineer Ken Peden tells Rolling Stone. “Everyone was a little uptight about it. Personally I didn’t like the plane.” Rudge himself reportedly opted to fly first class on commercial flights, a choice that fostered resentment among the band. “I spoke with Ronnie a day before [the crash], and he had definitely soured on Rudge, for a lot of things, but the plane was one of ’em,” the band’s longtime friend and business associate Alex Hodges told author Mark Ribowsky. “It sort of symbolized to the band that Rudge was doing things on the cheap, and here they were, one of the biggest bands in the world…They were not a happy bunch, and the plane was like a metaphor for them being trapped in a bad situation. I’m not gonna lie and say I sensed the plane was gonna go down, but I was very uneasy about them gettin’ on it, I’ll tell you that.”
Jo Jo Billingsley was also uneasy. The Honkettes vocalist had sat out the first few tour dates, but Van Zant called just prior to the Greenville gig to invite her to return to the fold when the band hit Little Rock, Arkansas, in the coming days. Though initially overjoyed, she too sensed that smell of death. “That night I had the most vivid dream,” she told Swampland.com in 2003. “I saw the plane smack the ground. I saw them screaming and crying, and I saw fire. I woke up screaming, and my mom came running in going, ‘Honey what is it?’ I said ‘Mama, I dreamed the plane crashed!’ And she said, ‘No, honey, it’s just a dream.’ And I said, ‘No, mom, it’s too real!'”
It’s possible Van Zant had filled Billingsley in on that day’s troubling flight from Lakeland, Florida. The Convair, which had served the band relatively well up until that point, began to exhibit serious mechanical malfunctions after takeoff on October 18th. “Just as we left the runway the starboard engine backfired, the bang so loud I thought it had blown apart,” the band’s security chief Gene Odom wrote in his memoir. “Long orange flames were pouring from the engine as the plane continued to climb. We were all terrified. … Twelve thousand feet in the air, the engine spewed out a ten-foot torch of fire that lasted for several minutes, offering each of us an unforgettable look at our very serious problem.” On the morning of their fatal journey, Odom approached the flight crew at the behest of the band, in an effort to get some answers about the aircraft. He claims McCreary and Gray insisted the plane was fine, but they’d call ahead for a mechanic to look things over – in Baton Rouge.
The plane rose to the skies for the last time at 5:02 p.m. local time without incident. Once in the air, anxiety gave way to giddy relief among the passengers. “We had decided the night before that we would definitely get rid of the plane in Baton Rouge, so we started partying to celebrate the last flight on it,” Powell told Rolling Stone in 1977. Music blared and the aisles filled with increasingly rambunctious revelers dancing 12,000 feet above the earth. Others relaxed in their seats and took in the magnificent views. “We were looking out the window at this October sky. The sun was setting and you could see the contrails from the aircraft. It was just beautiful,” Peden says.
In the back of the plane, a fiercely competitive game of poker was becoming heated. “I remember getting really upset when one of the players ripped the table out of the cabin wall,” remembered tour manager Roy Eckerman. Ordinarily Van Zant would have joined them, but back pain forced him to sprawl out on the floor with Honkettes member Leslie Hawkins acting as a temporary masseuse. “That was really the only space he could lay down and have room, and Leslie was cracking his back and all this stuff trying to relieve his issues,” says Peden. “So instead of being in his normal spot, which might have saved his life, he was up front when all the trouble developed.”
The trouble came suddenly. The right engine, which had been sputtering throughout the flight, died completely. Despite having refueled in Greenville, the pilots found themselves dangerously low on gas. At 6:42 p.m. McCreary frantically radioed Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center. “We need to get to a airport, the closest airport you’ve got, sir.” He was given vectors to McComb-Pike County Airport in McComb, Mississippi, which was now 17 miles behind them. Before McCreary could turn the plane around, the left engine also failed, causing steering mechanisms to shut down. They were in a free-fall at 4,500 feet. “It got real quiet. All we heard was air, wind,” recalled Powell.
McCreary entered the cabin and made the chilling announcement to his passengers: “We’re out of gas – put your heads between your legs and buckle up tight.” Pyle, himself a trained pilot, happened to be in the cockpit when the problems began. His father had been killed in an airplane crash, and he didn’t like what he saw. “I could see death in the man’s eyes,” he later told the Orlando Sentinel. “He was a good pilot, but he kind of freaked a little bit. Nothing like that had ever happened to him.” The news was met with incredulous expressions of disbelief. Some, understandably, cursed the plane (Odom claims that he rushed the cockpit and hissed, “I hope you two sons of bitches live through this, so I can kill both of you!”), but most were simply lost in thought as the plane began its 10-minute death glide to the ground. “Everybody was sitting down kind of praying, real silently,” said Powell. “Just being like, ‘Oh, god, please don’t take my life.'”
Exactly how Van Zant spent his last minutes alive is disputed. In his memoir, Odom recalls rousing him from his slumber in the airplane aisle and strapping him in a seat while the groggy singer complained, “Man, just let me sleep.” Pyle, however, remembers Van Zant being alert enough walk to the back of the plane to retrieve a pillow. “As he walked forward, he shook my hand. We looked at each other and smiled, and he continued forward and sat down. Ronnie knew that he was going to die.”
Attempts to maneuver a soft landing in a field or stretch of highway proved fruitless as the craft sank lower and lower into the remote forest a short distance from the Mississippi/Louisiana border. “The trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger,” Powell told Rolling Stone in 1977. “Then there was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats.” For 15 seconds the Convair tore a 500-foot swath through the thick timber, but the metal body couldn’t withstand the 90-mile-an-hour impact of the sturdy pines, which sheared off wings and tore open the fuselage. The cockpit and the tail were ripped away, and the remaining cabin bucked into a L-shaped tangle of wreckage as it skidded to a stop in the mangrove just after 6:53 p.m. local time, leaving a trail of debris and people. “Everyone but me was wearing a seatbelt when we crashed, yet every seat but one was ripped from the floor, and almost everyone was hurled forward into the wall panels in a pile of broken bodies that smothered the people on the bottom,” writes Odom.
Van Zant died instantly of blunt force trauma to the head. Dean Kilpatrick was killed on impact, as was Steve Gaines, but his sister Cassie lived a short time longer before succumbing to blood loss. The lifeless bodies of pilots McCreary and Gray remained strapped in their cockpit seats, which were now suspended upside-down from a nearby tree.
Powell’s nose had been nearly torn from his face after he crashed headfirst through a table. ”I sat on top of the airplane, which was turned sideways. I just sat there for a while, going, ‘What has happened?’ And I was crying. … I jumped off and there were people screaming. I remember hearing [bassist] Leon [Wilkeson] screaming, ‘Get me out of here.’ People that were still in the fuselage were trapped by seats and debris and metal and stuff. I just walked around trying to help whoever I could.” Ten feet above the carnage, Leslie Hawkins and Bill Sykes, a television crewman accompanying the band, were alive but stuck in a tree, with a heavy piece of sheet metal dangling precariously overhead. They waited, barely daring to breathe, until help could extricate them from their perilous position.
Pyle emerged from the wreck with several shattered ribs, but he was well enough to walk. Together with Peden and roadie Marc Frank, they set off into the pitch-black swamp to find help. “Every painful step I took was a drop of their blood. I knew that I had to keep putting one foot in front of another,” the drummer later said. Their progress was impeded not only by physical pain but also the local wildlife. “I heard this snake slither up to me in the darkness and I remember saying, out loud, ‘Snake, I will bite your head off,’ Pyle told Easy Reader News in 2013. “Nothing was going to stop me from getting help. I’m a Marine. We don’t leave anyone behind.” After fording a creek and burrowing under a barbed wire fence, the men came face to face with a herd of cattle. “I’m walking along and I’m thinking, ‘All I need is some bull to come out here and run over my ass after going through all this,'” remembers Peden.
In the distance they could make out lights from a home belonging to dairy farmer named Johnny Mote. The 22-year-old had been outside bailing hay in the twilight when he heard the crash in the distance, which he assumed was “a car skidding in gravel.” But sight of helicopter searchlights circling overhead began to make him nervous. Fearing escaped convicts from a nearby prison camp, Mote hopped in his pickup truck to investigate the area, only to find the three bloodied and dirty men on a nearby path. Now certain he was dealing with a jailbreak, the young farmer sped back to his mobile home. Yelling for his wife Barbara to lock the doors, he grabbed his .243 hunting rifle and stood guard outside. “We’re walking across his lawn and the guy gets out of the pickup truck, picks up his shotgun and fires it up in the air,” says Peden. “We all hit the dirt thinking, ‘Now we’re gonna get killed by a redneck farmer!’ So we all yell, ‘Hey! I don’t know who you think we are but we were on a plane and the plane crashed out there on the other side of that cow pasture.’ And the guy realized at that point we were telling the truth.”
As the seriousness of the situation became apparent, Mote assembled an ad hoc convoy of pickups and four-wheelers, which he led across the difficult terrain to the crash site. The lack of fuel on the plane meant that there was no fire, which saved an untold number of lives but also made the wreck difficult to locate in the darkness. The spotlights from the circling choppers, as well as the survivors’ chilling howls, ultimately helped them find their way. “When we first got down there, you could hear them whining,” Mote told the Sentinel. “Some of them were crying and hollering. It got to me.” His neighbor Dwain Easley also helped extricate the wounded from the twisted metal. “The first thing I saw was a bloody hand reaching out from the debris,” he told the Times-Picayune in 2015. “Folks were all mashed together. We’d move one and there would be another one laying there.”
Authorities quickly descended on the scene, transforming the desolate thicket into a hive of activity. A trio of helicopters from the Coast Guard, National Guard and Forrest County General Hospital ferried medical personal and illuminated the scene. Rescue vehicles on the ground found their path blocked by tangled underbrush and the 20-foot creek, so two bulldozers were dispatched to plow a primitive path off nearby Highway 568. It would take hours to remove the bodies of the dead and injured from the plane. Identification was hindered by the fact that many had been playing poker in the final minutes of the flight, with their wallets – and IDs – out of their pockets and now strewn at random across the forest.
News of the crash soon spread across the airwaves, and before long an estimated 3,000 had converged on the scene. Not all of them were good Samaritans. In the ensuing chaos, souvenir hunters took billfolds, jewelry, suitcases, band merchandise and even chunks of metal from the crash site. “In the darkness and confusion they took wallets, purses, jewelry, and cash, as well as airplane seats, seat belts, pillows, and anything else they could carry,” wrote Odom. “They took my watch, my wallet, my ring, and my money as I lay bleeding on the ground. I would like to think that only one ‘grave robber’ was involved, but so many items were missing that I have to believe otherwise.”
Most of the 20 survivors survivors were taken to Southwest Regional Medical Center in McComb, where the lobby had been transformed into a makeshift emergency treatment center. The list of injuries was extensive. Gary Rossington suffered two broken arms, a broken leg, a punctured stomach and liver. Allen Collins cracked two vertebrae, and a cut to his right arm was so severe that it almost required amputation. Billy Powell received extensive facial lacerations and a broken right knee. In addition to his fractured ribcage, Artimus Pyle was treated for numerous abrasions and contusions. Gene Odom had been thrown from the plane and broke his neck, his skin badly burned and one eye blinded by phosphorus from a de-icing flare that had been aboard. Bassist Leon Wilkeson had arguably the most harrowing recovery; as he faced many internal injuries, dislodged teeth, and a broken left arm and leg, his heart stopped twice on the operating table. When he awoke, he claimed that he had just been sitting on a cloud-shaped log with Van Zant and fellow Southern rock icon Duane Allman – who had died in a motorcycle accident almost exactly six years earlier. “Ronnie told me, ‘Boy, get yourself out of here, it’s not your time yet, get on out of here,'” he told Uhelszki in 1997.
Van Zant, the Gaineses, Kilpatrick and the pilots were laid in a temporary morgue at a local high school gymnasium. Rudge chartered three planes for loved ones to identify the bodies. Among them was Lacy Van Zant, who was accompanied by a family friend, .38 Special guitarist Don Barnes. Van Zant’s mother Marion, who had developed a severe phobia of flying after witnessing a crash that killed nine people as a child, declined to make the trip. After the excruciating ordeal of claiming his son, Lacy put on a brave face to visit recuperating members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd family. “They all looked at Lacy through stitches and swelling and he told me not to say anything about Ronnie,” Barnes told Team Rock. “He just said that Ronnie was fine and, ‘You just get better and rest.’ This man had just been to the funeral home and seen his son dead and decided to keep that to himself for these guys to heal. I told him that it was the strongest thing I had seen a man do.”
For a time, the fate of their lead singer was kept a secret from the mostly gravely injured band members. “When I woke up after a few days, there was just a priest and my mama standing there,” Rossington says in Lee Ballinger’s oral history of the band. “I went ‘What happened?’ I was in shock and they said, ‘Don’t tell him anything, it’ll freak him out.’ And I went ‘Mama?’ And she told me. Then I said that I needed to be alone. It was always weird for Allen and me because we were up front [in the plane]. And it was Steve and me and Ronnie and I was in the middle of them. And on the other side it was Allen in the middle of Dean and Cassie. They all died and we didn’t and we always wondered why, you know.” The survivors would grapple with that question for the remainder of their lives.
The precise cause of the crash was never established for certain. The Convair was not required to carry a flight data recorder, and much of the wreck was too damaged to be of use to investigators. In a report issued in June 1978, the National Travel Safety Bureau officially ruled that the probable cause of the accident was “fuel exhaustion and total loss of power from both engines due to crew inattention to fuel supply.” It adds that the right engine was burning more fuel than usual due to being operated in “auto-rich” mode, which would explain the flames (or “torching”) that had been visible on earlier flights. “The crew was either negligent or ignorant of the increased fuel consumption because they failed to monitor adequately the engine instruments for fuel flow and fuel quantity.” Several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entourage alleged that the pilots had been under the influence of drugs and alcohol the night before – or possibly during – the flight, but these claims were largely debunked by toxicology reports.
Still, the survivors were in no mood to point fingers. “There’s a million ‘maybes’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘should haves,'” Rossington later told the Sentinel. ”But what happened has already happened. It didn’t matter what caused it. It was unfortunate, but it happened. After the fact, to learn why, it doesn’t really do anything to you.” Rather than place the blame on the pilots, or the group’s management, Pyle places equal responsibility on the band themselves. “There were a lot of people on the plane that knew something was wrong, but we all kind of followed each other, and that’s where we made our mistake.”
Two days after the crash, a battered Billy Powell appeared outside the hospital to update members of the press. When asked whether Lynyrd Skynyrd could continue, he offered a forlorn and succinct response: “I don’t think so.” The decision to disband sent mourning fans clambering to purchase what they believed was the group’s swan song. But the cover of Street Survivors, depicting the group engulfed in flames, took on a grisly significance in the aftermath of the tragedy. At the request of Gaines’ widow, Teresa, MCA withdrew the sleeve. “I had to rush back and kill the album cover because it was not appropriate, although when the plane crashed, there were no flames,” photographer George Osaki says in the band’s oral history. “I had to take the flames out. That picture of Steve with his eyes closed, and the flames. It was too macabre.” Instead, the photo was replaced with a shot of the band set amid a simple black background.
Steve Gaines, the 28-year-old guitarist so full of promise that Van Zant once claimed the band would “all be in his shadow one day,” was buried along with his sister Cassie on October 23rd, 1977, in their hometown of Miami, Oklahoma. Dean Kilpatrick was laid to rest at Arlington Park Cemetery in Jacksonville. The service for Ronnie Van Zant took place two days later at Jacksonville’s Memory Garden. Billy Powell – confined to crutches, his face held together with stitches – was the only bandmate able to attend his funeral. Among the 150 guests were Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper and Tom Dowd, as well as members of Grinderswitch, .38 Special and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Reverend David Evans, a friend of the band who had also engineered 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy, conducted the ceremony in front of a brass coffin strewn with red roses. Musical selections included a recording of David Allen Coe’s “Another Pretty Country Song,” as well as a version of “Amazing Grace” sung by Van Zant’s brother Donnie and Daniels. When the brief service concluded, the voice of Lynyrd Skynyrd was buried with his trademark black hat and favorite fishing pole. Daniels read a poem he had written especially for the occasion.
A brief candle both ends burning
An endless mile a bus wheel turning
A friend to share the lonesome times
A handshake and a sip of wine
So say it loud and let it ring
That we’re all part of everything
The present, future and the past
Fly on proud bird, you’re free at last
The remaining members of Lynyrd Skynyrd would spend much of the following decade struggling to cope with their losses. Some would seek solace in music, while others turned to drugs and alcohol. Ever the survivors, they ultimately found their way back to each other, reuniting in 1987 with Johnny Van Zant stepping into his older brother’s role. The proud, free birds of the Southern rock would fly again, but they’d never fully shake the memory of that long dark night in the Mississippi wilderness, and the sudden death of their musical kin.