44 Years Ago: Horrifying Plane Crash Nearly Destroys Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd endured one of the worst tragedies in music history on Oct. 20, 1977, when a plane carrying the band and their entourage crashed in Mississippi, killing several members of the group. But the band would rise again to bring the music of Skynyrd to an entirely new generation of fans.
The pioneering Southern rock band had just released their fifth album, Street Survivors, on Oct. 17, following a string of hits that already included "Free Bird," "Gimme Three Steps," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Gimme Back My Bullets." The new album went gold within days, on the strength of its lead single, "What's Your Name," and Lynyrd Skynyrd embarked on a tour to promote the project, traveling between concert dates in their own Convair CV-300 twin-engine plane.
Lynyrd Skynyrd were flying from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge, La., on tour when their plane reportedly ran out of fuel toward the end of the flight. The pilots tried to land on a small airstrip, but the bottom of the airplane clipped some trees, and the aircraft went down in a remote wooded area.
Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant died on impact, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. The other band members and members of the road crew suffered devastating injuries. Drummer Artimus Pyle and two crew members managed to crawl from the wreckage of the aircraft and hiked through the woods until they waved down a local farmer, who sent for help.
The original cover for Street Survivors depicted the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd engulfed in flames, and MCA subsequently recalled it out of respect for those who had died and their families. The tragic crash and its aftermath derailed Lynyrd Skynyrd's career for a decade, but the band reunited in 1987, with Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother Johnny joining Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Pyle and guitarist Ed King — who had left the band two years before the crash — as their new lead singer. The group has continued on with various lineups ever since.
The tragic Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash is the subject of a documentary titled Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash, which premiered in February of 2020.