MOJO Time Machine: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Fatal Air Crash

On 20 October, 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines died in a plane crash


by Fred Dellar |

20 October, 1977

Lynyrd Skynyrd were looking good. Guitarist Gary Rossington was back to full fitness following his involvement in a car crash the previous year, while front man Ronnie Van Zant was said to be cleaning up his act after becoming a father. Additionally, he continually expounded the virtues of newcomer Steve Gaines, who had replaced Ed King amid the band's three-man guitar frontline. “We auditioned a few guys to fill the gap that Ed left,” Van Zant claimed, “Leslie West jammed with us a few times and Wayne Perkins was considered, but the length of time it's taken to get Steve has been worth it.”

During 1976 they'd notched two chart singles - one being a live version of their signature song Freebird, which had gone Top 20. Also, two of their albums, Give Me Back My Bullets and the live One More For The Road, were huge sellers. At MCA's head office they celebrated the rise of Florida-style Southern Rock.

Earlier in year, during April, Ronnie Van Zant hauled the band down to Criteria Studios, in his home state, to record their 1977 album release with producer Tom Dowd. However, the sessions failed to ignite, and in July they hit Studio One, Doraville, Georgia to re-record the whole album. Gaines was much to fore at the sessions, sharing lead vocals on You Got That Right and guitar-boogie I Know A Little. He also delivered a self-penned blues, Ain't No Good Life, one of few songs so far to feature a lead singer other than Van Zant. The resulting album, titled Street Survivors, was released on October 17.

Three days later, and five shows into what was proving to be the band's most successful tour, Lynyrd Skynyrd played Greenville Memorial auditorium in South Carolina and boarded a chartered 1948 Convair CV-300 to fly to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. As the band boarded, Ronnie Van Zant was heard to say: “If it's your time to go, it's your time to go.”

The plane was flying on borrowed time. Earlier in 1977 Aerosmith had inspected the plane for possible use on a summer tour but rejected it on the grounds that neither the plane nor its crew were of an adequate standard. Keyboardist Billy Powell later told Rolling Stone, "we decided the night before that we would definitely get rid of the plane in Baron Rouge. So we started partying to celebrate the last flight on it.”

“The pilot said, ‘Oh my God, strap in.’” 

Billy Powell

As the aircraft neared its destination, it ran out of fuel. Powell recalled, “The right engine started spluttering and I went up to the cockpit. The pilot said he was just transferring oil from one wing to another and everything was 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.’ We strapped in and minute later we crashed."

Plane Crashed In Swampland

The pilot attempted to make it to a nearby airstrip, but the plane crashed in swampland a few miles north of Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, his backup singer sister Cassie Gaines, an assistant road manager, the pilot and co-pilot. The other band members, Billy Powell, plus guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, bassist Leon Wilkeson, drummer Pyle, Hawkins and others survived, albeit with serious injuries - Powell suffering lacerations to his face and right leg.

In the wake of the crash, Street Survivors soared to number five in the U.S. charts, eventually becoming the band's second platinum album. The cover originally featured the band surrounded by flames. In the wake of the disaster, it was replaced by one that placed the band against a simple black backdrop.

Steve and Cassie Gaines were buried in Orange Park, Florida on October 23, while a service was held two days later at the Jacksonville Memorial Garden for Ronnie Van Zant, where the attendees included Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, Al Kooper, Tom Dowd and members of Grinderswitch, '38 Special and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. In the NME Tony Parsons wrote of “the band you shouldn't shed tears over but whose memory you should honour by going to the nearest bar and get hopelessly drunk. You know they would prefer it that way.”

There would be a ten-year hiatus before Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother Johnny kicked the band into life once more and headed out on a full-scale tour along with Rossington, Pyle, Wilkeson, Powell and guitarist Ed King. With Rossington and Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd are still on the road.

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