On This Day: Lynyrd Skynyrd Loses Multiple Band Members to Tragic Plane Crash in 1977

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

 Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in the early 60s as My Backyard. After a few years of regional touring, small venues, and lineup changes, Skynyrd started bringing Southern rock to the masses. Even after their debut in 1973, their lineup continued to shift. Guitarist Ed King came and went. Steve Gaines replaced him. Artimus Pyle replaced original drummer Bob Burns. By the time the mid-70s came around the Florida-based band was at its peak.

On October 17th, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd released their fifth studio album Street Survivors. The album quickly went Gold with sales driven by its lead single “What’s Your Name” and the band’s already-impressive discography. By this time, they had already popularized the Southern rock sound with tunes like “Sweet Home Alabama”, “Gimme Three Steps”, “Free Bird”, and “Gimme Three Steps” among others. They were truly on top of the world. Then, three days after the album hit shelves, tragedy struck.

On October 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd lost several band members to a tragic plane crash in a wooded area in Mississippi.

The Plane Crash that Paused Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Career

In 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lineup consisted of Ronnie Van Zandt (vocals), Leon Wilkeson (bass), Billy Powell (keys), Artimus Pyle (drums), Steve Gaines (guitar), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar), and their backup singers. That year, they embarked on a tour to support Street Survivors.

Having raked in the cash with the first four albums, Lynyrd Skynyrd traveled between gigs in a chartered Convair CV-300 twin-engine plane, according to The Boot. On the night of October 20, the band was flying from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Near the end of the trip the plane ran out of fuel.

The pilots tried to land the Convair on a narrow airstrip. However, it was losing altitude too quickly. As a result, the bottom of the plane hit the tops of some tall trees. Then, it went down in a remote wooded area near Gillsburg, Mississippi.

Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalist and founding member Ronnie Van Zandt died on impact. Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines also perished in the crash. The band also lost their road manager Dean Kilpatrick. Additionally, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray died in the crash.

Other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and their road crew sustained injuries from the crash, but made it out alive. Artimus Pyle and a couple of crew members who were up to the task hiked out of the woods in search of help. Finally, they made it to a road and were able to flag down a local farmer who would call emergency services.

This looked like it would be the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd. However, it’s impossible to keep a good band down. They pulled back together a decade later. Van Zandt’s younger brother Johnny took over vocal duties and Ed King returned to play guitar. They joined Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, and Artimus Pyle.