'Lynyrd Skynyrd' Crash
Near Gillsburg, Mississippi
October 20th, 1977
"Born in the Bayou"
'Lynyrd Skynyrd', one of the most commercially successful and critically
acclaimed Southern Rock groups of the 1970's, was founded in the
mid-1960s when five friends - singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Gary
Rossington, guitarist Allen Collins, bassist Leon Wilkeson, and drummer
Bob Burns - formed at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville,
Florida, initially as the group, 'My Backyard.'
By 1969, the band's name
had changed to 'Lynard Skynard' to immortalize (and jab at) their school
gym teacher and coach Leonard Skinner, who was regarded by the long
haired students as a source of teen angst.
1972, the band was discovered by producer Al Kooper of “Blood, Sweat, and
Tears,” who had attended one of their shows at a club in Atlanta. The
band changed the spelling of their name to "Lynyrd Skynyrd", and Kooper
signed them to MCA Records, producing their first album, which was
self-titled, in 1973, and featured their hit song "Free Bird", which
received national airplay, eventually reaching #19 on the Billboard Hot
The band enjoyed rising success, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was set to headline
at some of the top venues in the nation, including Madison Square Garden
-- fulfilling a lifelong dream of Van Zant's – on their “Street
Survivor” tour of 1977, which
started in Miami, Florida, on October 15th, 1977, and
was set to end on February 1st, 1978, in Honolulu.
The music group stood on the precipice of becoming one of America's
favorite touring bands, coupled with the release of their sixth album,
named Street Survivors, on October 17th, 1977, & sold a half million
records immediately upon release.
Of note, the cover of the album featured a photograph of the
band, engulfed in flames.
The album also included an order form for a "Lynyrd Skynyrd Survival
“I Ain't The One”
As an integral part of the tour, a airplane was required to transport
the band, their management, entourage, and roadies, from gig to gig.
The aircraft chosen, a Convair 240, was manufactured in 1948, the
third one ever built, and originally delivered to Western Airlines on
December 30, 1948 and registered NC8401H. The aircraft had gone through
many owners before being purchased by the L&J Company of Addison, Texas,
in April 1977, been registered as N55VM, and had accumulated over 29,000
flight hours in October of 1977.
The plane was powered by two counter-rotating Pratt & Whitney
Ironically, the same plane had been inspected by members of Aerosmith's
flight crew for possible use in the early summer of 1977, but was
rejected because it was felt that neither the plane nor the crew were up
In an interview in the book “Walk This Way”, Aerosmith's assistant chief
of flight operations Zunk Buker tells of seeing the pilots, Captain
First Officer William J. Gray, Jr.,
employees of Falcon Aviation, trading a bottle of “Jack Daniels” back
and forth while Buker and his father were inspecting the plane.
In mid-October, during the tour, Kenneth Peden, a sound technician with
Lynyrd Skynyrd, said a six-foot flame was shooting from one of the
engines on a flight earlier in the week from Miami to Greenville. South
Carolina. Peden also stated that several members had decided to take a
vote on whether to continue flying on the plane as soon as it reached
their Louisiana State University concert in Baton Rouge, that had been
scheduled for that Friday night.
Afterwards, Cassie Gaines indicated she wanted to ride with the
band's equipment truck, but was talked out of it
Ronnie Van Zant's last words before he boarded that plane were, "If it's
your time to go, it's your time to go."
"I Know A Little"
The Convair departed the Greenville Downtown Airport (GMU) a little
after 4 PM, Eastern time, on October 20th, 1977, and bound
for Ryan Airport (BTR) in Baton Rogue. Aboard were the two pilots, and
24 passengers, all associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd in one way or another.
The intended route of flight for N55VM was to be, via Instrument Flight
Rules, following radio navigation airway V-20 to Electric City, direct
Atlanta, direct La Grango, direct Hattiesburg, V-222 to McComb, then
V-194 direct to Baton Rouge. The pilot requested an altitude of 12,000
feet and stated that his time enroute would be 2 hours and 43 minutes,
and that the aircraft had 5 hours of fuel on board.
But, at around 6:42 PM, one
of the pilots advised the air traffic controllers, based at Houston
Center, "Yes sir, we need to get to an airport, the closest airport
you've got, sir!"
Houston Center responded by asking the crew if they were in an emergency
status. The reply was, "Yes sir, we're low on fuel and we're just about
out of it, we want vectors to McComb, post haste please, sir!"
Houston Center gave the flight vectors to McComb and advised it to turn
to a heading of 250 degrees. The flight did not confirm that a turn was
initiated until a few moments later, but then the pilot of N55VM said,
"We are not declaring an emergency, but we do need to get close to
McComb as straight and good as we can get, sir!"
A minute later, the crew of N55VM advised Houston Center saying, “55
Victor Mike, we're out of fuel!"
Center replied, "Roger, understand you're out of fuel?"
The flight replied, "I'm sorry, it's just an indication of it." The crew
did not explain what that indication was.
Then, Houston Center requested the flight's altitude. The response from
the flight crew was, “We're at four point five." That was the last
recorded communication between N55VM and Houston Center.
A few minutes later, the sound of an emergency location
transmitter was heard by a nearby aircraft, broadcasting from a remote
wooded section near Gillsburg, Mississippi.
Meanwhile, aboard N55VM, Billy Powell would recall his experiences in an interview with
Rolling Stone in November of 1977, “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. The
right engine started sputtering, and I went up to the cockpit. The pilot
said they were just transferring oil from one wing to another,
everything's okay. Later, the engine went dead. Artimus [Pyle] and I ran
to the cockpit. The pilot was in shock. He said, 'Oh my God, strap in.'
Ronnie [Van Zant] had been asleep on the floor and Artimus got him up
and he was really pissed. We strapped in and a minute later we crashed.
The pilot said he was trying for a field, but I didn't see one.
trees kept getting closer, they kept getting bigger. Then there was a
sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of
baseball bats. I crashed into a table; people were hit by flying objects
all over the plane. Ronnie was killed with a single head injury. The top
of the plane was ripped open. Artimus crawled out the top and said there
was a swamp, maybe alligators. I kicked my way out and felt for my hands
-- they were still there. I felt for my nose and it wasn't, it was on
the side of my face. There was just silence. Artimus and Ken Peden and I
ran to get help Artimus with his ribs sticking out.”
The plane had skipped and skidded across tree tops for about 100 yards,
then smashed into a swampy area, twisting the cockpit to the left,
people to the ground when it
split open at about the middle of the fuselage,
and spilling the plane's contents throughout the mangrove, on
timber company acreage adjoining the farm of Johnny Mote.
a 22-year-old dairy farmer & factory
worker, who lived near the crash site close to the Mississippi-Louisiana border,
told reporters that the plane "sounded like a car skidding in gravel" as it clipped the
trees. "When it hit the ground it was a deep rumble, like it was
underground. It sounded like wrinkling metal" he said.
Mote recalled that
he was putting some hay out when three bloody survivors, who had made
their way through the woods, called him for help. "One of them was
hugging me around the neck and telling me, "We got to get them out."
“Never Too Late”
One of the first rescue workers on the scene was Jeffrey Wall, 23, and a
member of the Gillsburg Volunteer Fire Department.
He said that when he reached the crash site, he learned that
three members of the band had scrambled out of the plane and gone to
Mote's house about a quarter mile away for help.
"They were in pretty bad shape. One of them had some ribs
sticking out and the other two had blood all over them," Wall said.
"Some people were crying and some were moaning. Some didn't know what
was going on," Wall said. He also said rescuers had to wade through a
waterhole to get to the crash site and that, once there, they had to
remove band instruments to free trapped survivors.
undergrowth of the swamp hampered rescue operations, and several
emergency vehicles became stuck in the mud when they tried to drive
through the woods to get close to the aircraft. Rescue crews were also
hindered by a 20-foot wide, waist deep creek they had to cross to reach
from the Coast Guard, National Guard and Forrest County General
Hospital assisted in the rescue operation,
transporting medical personnel to the scene,
and lighting the crash site with floodlights, and two bulldozers
were used to cut a rough road through the woods and brush from the
nearby Mississippi State Highway 568.
aboard was injured and taken to one of the nearby hospitals, where
identification of the victims were complicated by the fact that several
of the passengers were
apparently playing poker before the plane crashed,
and had their wallets, with their identification papers, out.
However, when the smoke cleared, six
lives were claimed in the crash including singer/songwriter Ronnie Van
Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant
road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William
Click here to see
the crew and passenger manifest for the last flight of N55VM
Steve and Cassie Gaines were buried October 23rd in Miami, Oklahoma,
their hometown. Private services were held for Ronnie Van Zant
October 25th in the Jacksonville Memory Garden. Billy Powell, on
crutches and with his face stitched up, was the only band member
able to attend. Friends attending included Dickey Betts, Charlie
Daniels, Al Kooper, Tom Dowd and members of Grinderswitch, .38
Special and the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
weeks after the crash, in the November 5th, 1977, issue of Billboard
Magazine, a two-page ad appeared. With
a black background, and white script writing, it read "Thank You, GOD,
for Sparing Ronnie's Band.
There Isn't A Song That Can Express Our Feelings For Ronnie, Steve,
Cassie & Dean.
Atlanta Rhythm Section, Studio One, Doraville, GA"
The second page listed the names of the three deceased players
and their manager.
Investigators discovered that the right engine's magneto - the aerospace
equivalent to a spark plug - had been malfunctioning, then making
possible that the damaged magneto fooled the pilots into creating an
abnormally rich fuel mixture, causing the Convair to literally run out
MCA Records, out of courtesy, withdrew the
"Street Survivors" album cover and replaced it
with another design, this time a photo of the band striking a similar pose against a plain
black background. The album rose the sales charts
to become the band's second platinum selling album, hitting #5 in
the United States.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the likely cause of
the crash of N55VM was, "fuel exhaustion and total loss of power on both
engines due to crew inattention to the fuel supply."
The Safety Board further found that the fuel exhaustion was
caused by deficient flight planning, and an engine malfunction of
undetermined nature in the right engine which resulted in higher than
normal fuel consumption.
“How Soon We Forget”
In 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited for a full-scale tour with crash
survivors Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson and Artimus Pyle
and former guitarist Ed King. Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny,
took over as the new lead singer and primary songwriter.
However, in interviews decades after the crash, Artimus Pyle that the
pilots, panicking when the right engine failed, accidentally dumped the
remaining fuel. Of course, in another interview with Howard Stern, Pyle
stated that the fuel gauge in the plane malfunctioned, and the pilots
had failed to manually check the tanks before taking off.
On March 16th, 2006, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, including singer
Ronnie Van Zant, guitarists Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Ed King,
and Steve Gaines, bassist Leon Wilkeson, keyboard player Billy
Powell, and drummers Bob Burns and Artimus Pyle.
the crash is remembered by another generation by a famous line in
1997 movie Con Air when, after the prisoners successfully
escaped, the song "Sweet Home Alabama" played
in background as the convicts partied. One of the characters,
Garland Greene, played by Steve Buscemi, said, "Define irony: a
bunch of idiots dancing around on a plane to a song made famous by a
band that died in a plane crash."