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Falling Free Bird: The Truth About The Infamous Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash Is Stranger Than Fiction

Updated September 18, 2020 901.6k views15 items

Tragedy struck Lynryd Skynyrd, one of the best Southern rock bands, just three days after the group released its fifth album and was seemingly on the brink of unprecedented popular acclaim. On October 20, 1977, a plane crash killed three members of the group, including its guiding light, Ronnie Van Zant. What caused Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane to crash? Even in the 21st century, despite an official investigation and opinion that characterized the crash as the result of pilot error, the circumstances and decisions that led to the aircraft's unusual demise remain unknown. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd is considered to have one of the most gruesome band histories because they lost several people in the aerial accident. Who died in the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash? Of the 24 passengers who boarded the ill-fated flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, three members of the band were killed. The death of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie Gains, along with the aftermath of the tragedy, essentially destroyed one of the most unique voices of American rock and roll. Listed here are the facts behind the infamous plane crash that ended Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

  • Several Band Members Did Not Want To Fly On The Convair, But They Were Overruled By Band Leader Ronnie Van Zant

    Van Zant was more than just the band's main song writer and central figure. Known as "Papa Ronnie" when sober, he was a thoughtful, patriarchal influence who had held the band together through earlier, leaner times. While intoxicated, he was an intimidating, violent individual who once knocked out the two front teeth of keyboard player Billy Powell (he felt Powell overextended his "Free Bird" piano intro). He had even slashed the hands of Gary Rossington, his best friend and guitarist, with a broken beer bottle.

    Getting a new plane meant cancelling tour dates, which was something Van Zant wouldn't even consider. He also appealed to the band's pride by saying that they were scheduled to appear on the campus of LSU, headlining in front of a crowd of at least 10,000 fans. This was not some venue in New York or Chicago, it was in the Deep South, in front of their most loyal fan base. Typical of a man who repeatedly said he would never make it to the age of 30, Van Zant got on the plane, telling Cassie Gaines, "If your time is up, your time is up."  

  • Initially, The Flight Was Uneventful, But Suddenly, Problems Occurred With The Right Engine

    Initially, The Flight Was Uneventful, But Suddenly, Problems Occurred With The Right Engine
    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Reluctantly, the rest of the band and Skynyrd entourage boarded the plane. A pilot, co-pilot, and twenty four total passengers clambered onto the forty-seat prop plane. The aircraft's interior was jammed with equipment, instruments, and luggage. Most reluctant of all, backup singer Cassie Gaines cancelled her plane reservation and also got on, not wanting to desert her brother, guitarist Steve Gaines. 

    Marc Frank, a 24-year-old roadie with the band, later recalled that there was a great deal of apprehension at the beginning of the flight. But the plane took off without a problem, and two and a half hours transpired without incident. The entourage relaxed and some even started playing poker. Ronnie Van Zant slept on the floor in the rear aisle. But then, Frank noticed gasoline spraying out of the right engine. He wondered if the pilots were merely trying to transfer fuel from one engine to the other.

    Suddenly, the right engine propeller stopped and the plane began to jerk violently. The pilots had just radioed Houston Air Traffic Control, sensing they had a fuel issue. They requested landing vectors for the nearest airport, a tiny airstrip in McComb, Mississippi. 

  • The Left Propeller Also Suddenly Stopped, Thousands Of Feet In The Air

    Pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray were already aware of a fuel issue and there is speculation that they were attempting to transfer oil from one engine to the other but instead mistakenly jettisoned whatever remaining fuel they had, causing the left engine to also shut off, a major issue at 9,000 feet in the air.

    Band members Artimus Pyle and Billy Powell entered the cockpit when one of the pilots, his eyes distorted with fear, told them to get back to their seats and have everyone strap in. Pyle woke up Ronnie Van Zant and informed him of the situation. Survivors would later say that the Skynyrd lead vocalist nonchalantly headed to his seat, an irritated look on his face, as if this was all just another bad day at the office. Ronnie Van Zant was 87 days shy of his 30th birthday.

  • The Plane Glided For Several Thousand Terrifying Feet

    The pilots radioed Houston at 6:42 PM. They were told that they had passed the airstrip at McComb and would have to try to turn the plane around. To attempt this, Marc Frank said the pilots made a frightening 180-degree turn with both wings perpendicular to the ground. One minute he could hear the plane’s engines, the next just air passing over the aircraft. He could hear his fellow passengers quietly praying.

    With daylight rapidly disappearing, only the treetops of a dense wilderness were visible when he looked out of the plane’s window. The aircraft was now just a few hundred feet above the ground. The pilots were desperately looking for some open area or farmland to try to bring the plane down as safely as possible as they were still eight miles from the airport. They never found any - the plane would be forced to land in the middle of a Mississippi swamp.

    It finally scraped the treetops and then descended into a heavily wooded area. Billy Powell remembers:

    "We hit the trees at approximately 90 mph. It felt like being hit with baseball bats in a steel garbage can with the lid on. The tail section broke off, the cockpit broke off and buckled underneath, and both wings broke off. The fuselage turned sideways, and everybody was hurled forward.”