The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash
More than four decades after the fateful crash that ended Lynyrd Skynyrd's quickly rising music career, people still listen to their legendary hits. Their unique mix of rock and country rhythms and sounds made them a driving force in the rise of Southern rock as a band that stood out against the others.
Their talent and the promise of amazing things to come made their untimely demise all the more devastating for fans — especially when the circumstances of the crash left a mountain of unanswered questions. Find out why so many fans were left dazed and confused after this tragedy. Was the crash really a simple malfunction, or was it something that could have been avoided?
Who Were They?
Lynyrd Skynyrd rose to fame in the early 1970s with songs like "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama." The band was made up of several members, including guitarists Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Leon Wilkeson, drummer Artimus Pyle, keyboardist Billy Powell, and lead singer Ronnie Van Zant.
Their Fateful Meeting
The way the band formed is unusual, with original member Ronnie Van Zant hitting then-drummer Bob Burns with a ball on a ball field in 1964. Burns and Gary Rossington were already friends, and the three got together and jammed on their instruments.
The Convair 240
In October 1977, the band was enjoying increasing fame and the recent release of their fifth album, "Street Survivors", while on tour in the U.S. The plane they chose for this tour was a 1948 Convair 240. This plane was old and had already accumulated more than 29,000 hours of flight time.
The decision to fly on the 1948 Convair 240 did not go without objections from some of the bandmates. One member, Cassie Gaines, specifically objected to using the plane, but she was unfortunately talked into it by Ronnie Van Zant.
The Convair 240 took off at 4:02 p.m. on October 20, 1977, headed for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The flight was expected to take about three hours. With 400 gallons of fuel, the pilot indicated they had enough to last them five hours in the air if needed.
Hopes and Prayers
While the pilots struggled to comprehend why they had already run out of fuel, they decided to inform passengers of what was happening. Survivor Billy Powell later reported that everyone was simply relaxing and hanging out when the worrisome news came.
Preparing for Impact
The group was coached on how to prepare for impact. The first indication they were about to hit land was the sound of the pine trees hitting the bottom and sides of the plane. Powell described it as "being rolled down a hill in a garbage can and being hit by a thousand baseball bats at the same time."
Disaster in the Woods
As the accident report indicated afterward, the wings of the plane were torn off as it skidded through the trees and along the ground. The cockpit collided with a tree, killing the pilots, and the rest of the plane broke apart and continued to hurtle through the trees.
The horror was far from over. The scenes Powell described in the aftermath are gruesome. In shock and bleeding heavily from his severely damaged nose, he soon heard shouts for help from the others. Leon Wilkeson was trapped inside the cabin, and Powell heard him yell, "Get me out of here!"
Searching for Help
Together, the three desperately made their way through the surrounding swamp to find help. They wanted the rest of the band and crew to be rescued as soon as possible. Eventually, they made it to a nearby farm, where Johnny Mote had heard the distant crash and thought a car had skidded on gravel.
The Lives Lost
Unfortunately, not everyone on the plane survived. Six of the people on the flight died instantly upon impact, including both pilots, Cassie Gaines, Steve Gaines, Ronnie Van Zant and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Everyone else on the plane suffered serious injuries.
Breaking the News to the Public
This event wasn’t immediately reported. It wasn't until the evening and the following morning that official news was released about the Lynyrd Skynyrd fatal plane crash. At 8:20 p.m. on CBS news, Walter Cronkite famously reported the violent incident.
After such a significant event, reporters are inevitably going to look for every detail they can related to the story and the band. In 1977, some reporters even went looking for the crash site in the woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi, and they were successful in finding it.
An Investigation Is Launched
Viewers weren’t satisfied with initial explanations for the crash. They wondered how the plane could have run out of fuel so quickly without the pilots realizing what was happening. People wanted answers, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation to find them.
The final conclusion reached by the team of investigators was that the right engine of the plane had consumed more gas than usual due to "an engine malfunction of undetermined nature." Essentially, they weren't exactly sure why the fuel got so low.
One of the worst parts about the entire story is what Artimus Pyle revealed about their conversation on the flight. He said one of the things they discussed was switching their plane to a Learjet for upcoming flights. In other words, they knew the plane wasn't in great condition and didn't plan on using it anymore.
An Unpleasant Album Cover
After the band suffered a tragic plane crash, the cover of their most recent album, Street Survivors, took on an ominous feel. On the album cover, the band members stand in a row in front of tall flames — some even have their eyes closed with strange facial expressions.
When celebrities abruptly pass away, their name and product normally undergo a bump in popularity. After all, many people are talking about them, sharing their music, buying their albums and mourning their passing. Lynyrd Skynyrd was no exception to this pattern of behavior.
The five band members who survived the crash were in no condition to think about music for a very long time. They had all suffered extreme injuries that took time to heal, not to mention the time they needed to recover from the mental trauma of what they had experienced.
Eventually, Billy Powell, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle, ex-member Ed King and Ronnie Van Zant's little brother, Johnny (pictured), all got together for a Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion. It was 10 years after the plane crash, and they created the Southern by the Grace of God live album.
Unfortunately, the fateful crash of the Convair 240 wasn’t the only tragedy to befall the Lynyrd Skynyrd crew. After surviving the first event Allen Collins was involved in nasty car accident in 1986 that left him paralyzed. Four years later, he died of pneumonia caused by the effects of the paralysis.
A Movie Controversy
Years later, Cleopatra Films wanted to produce a film about the Lynyrd Skynyrd band, focusing particularly on the devastating plane crash. They began working with Artimus Pyle on a script, but Gary Rossington and the family members of those who died had differing opinions.
Despite the controversy sparked by the first film attempt, a 2018 documentary called Lynyrd Skynyrd: If I Leave Here Tomorrow was released, with the cooperation of Gary Rossington (pictured right). After the haunting documentary aired, Pyle's version of a movie was ruled acceptable.
The Crash Site Today
Fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd haven’t forgotten about the tragedy or where it took place. If you travel to Gillsburg, Mississippi, today to visit the site of the crash, you will see various homages to the band. "Free Bird" has been engraved into a tree, along with many fans' names.
An Official Monument
Ronnie Van Zant's wife (pictured) decided in 2019 that she wanted to create a more permanent monument to her husband and the other people who died that day. She organized the Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument Project and managed to raise an impressive $80,000 for the cause.
The Last Living Survivor
Gary Rossington remains the last living founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd — Artimus Pyle didn’t join the band until a few years later — but that hasn't stopped him from performing. On his own and with new band members, he has continued to make music and tour the country, but these performances won't last forever.
An Unfortunate Coincidence
While the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash is a story most people know about, certain details remain largely unknown. For example, Artimus Pyle had an eerily similar thing happen to his father. Pyle's dad, Del, loved flying planes as a hobby, and he passed away in a plane.
Leon Wilkeson's Struggle
Bassist Leon Wilkeson survived the horrific plane crash — but just barely. He had dislodged teeth, a broken arm, a broken leg and severe internal injuries. According to reports, his heart stopped two times while he was on the operating table, but he miraculously recovered.
Surviving the plane crash isn’t the only way guitarist Gary Rossington has sidestepped death. In recent years, he experienced serious problems with his heart. He needed quintuple bypass surgery after being diagnosed with coronary artery disease, and he had already suffered multiple heart attacks.
A Legacy That Lives On
There's no doubt that the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy lives on to this day and is still going strong. Their southern rock sound influenced many artists that followed, and their song "Free Bird" is still requested at concerts. Young, old and every age in between has found something to relate to in the band's profound sound.