Tragedy in rock history: investigating the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash

Angel DiBilio /

On October 20, 1977, one of the most devastating incidents in the history of rock music occurred—the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. This tragic event not only claimed the lives of several band members but also left an indelible impact on the music industry and the world of rock and roll.  

In this article, we delve into the details of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, examining the circumstances surrounding it and the lasting effects it had on the band and the wider music community.

The tragic incident 

Background and flight details 

Lynyrd Skynyrd was a prominent American rock band known for their hits including ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Free Bird’. On October 20, 1977, the band was traveling on a chartered Convair CV-240 aircraft as part of their ‘Street Survivors’ tour. This aircraft was chosen due to its ability to accommodate the band’s equipment and personnel. 

The band chartered an aircraft from L & J Company located in Addison, Texas, to fly them from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Crash details 

After refueling with 400 gallons of 100-octane, low-lead fuel in Greenville, the aircraft took off from Greenville Downtown Airport bound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on October 20 at 4:02 pm. 

During the flight, the plane began to experience some mechanical issues, including a fuel gauge malfunction and engine complications. Upon realizing that the fuel supply was inadequate, the pilots endeavored to divert the plane towards McComb Airport, located approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) northeast of the eventual crash site in Amite County, Mississippi.

However, it became evident that the aircraft would not be able to reach its intended destination. In a final attempt, pilots opted for an emergency landing in an open field, situated approximately 300 yards (270 meters) away from the eventual crash location, in the vicinity of Gillsburg, Mississippi. At around 6:52 pm the aircraft skimmed along the treetops for about 100 yards (90 meters) before violently colliding with a large tree, causing it to shatter into multiple pieces.  

The impact caused the deaths of six out of the 24 passengers and crew. Those killed were lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve’s sister), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William John Gray. 

Lives lost and survivors 


The Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash claimed the lives of several talented individuals. The deaths of lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines were devastating for the band and their fans. Van Zant was a charismatic frontman, known for his powerful vocals and poetic songwriting. Steve Gaines, an exceptional guitarist, contributed greatly to the band’s sound. The losses of Cassie Gaines, Dean Kilpatrick, Walter McCreary, and William John Gray deepened the tragedy yet further. 


Among the survivors were drummer Artimus Pyle, guitarist Gary Rossington, keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and several crew members. The survivors experienced extensive lacerations, bone fractures and multiple internal injuries. 

MCA Records, Public domain / Wikimedia 

Accident investigation 

Following the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched an investigation to determine the cause of the accident. The investigation revealed that the aircraft experienced fuel depletion and complete engine failure as a result of the crew’s negligence in monitoring the fuel supply.

Factors that contributed to the fuel depletion included insufficient flight planning and an unspecified engine malfunction in the right engine, leading to excessive fuel consumption and a phenomenon known as ‘torching’. Toward the conclusion of the flight, the twin-engine Convair CV-240 ran out of fuel entirely. The pilots’ lack of awareness of the fuel shortage, combined with the plane’s already compromised state, led to the tragic outcome. 

The Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash resulted in various legal proceedings. The victims’ families sued the band’s management company, the pilot’s estate and the manufacturer of the aircraft. Ultimately, the lawsuits resulted in settlements and agreements, highlighting the need for improved safety regulations in the aviation industry. 

Influence and legacy 

Impact on Lynyrd Skynyrd 

Needless to say, the crash had a profound impact on the band itself. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the surviving members disbanded temporarily, mourning the loss of their friends and dealing with the emotional aftermath. However, they eventually regrouped and carried the band’s legacy on, with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, stepping in as their new lead vocalist. 

Over the years the crash site has become a memorial for fans, rescuers and survivors, featuring an oak tree adorned with symbols representing Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

Broader impact on the music 

The Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash sent shockwaves throughout the music industry. It served as a stark reminder of the unexpected risks involved in the pursuit of music.  

It also had a lasting impact on the rock and roll genre. The band’s music, characterized by their distinctive Southern rock sound, resonated with audiences around the world. The loss of such talented musicians was a significant blow to the genre, leaving a void that could never truly be filled.  

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