Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
The front man’s prophecy
Ronnie Van Zant was the famed frontman of the group, but he also had the eerie gift of foresight. Van Zant missed the 27 club (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, etc), but that didn’t stop him from predicting his death to come before he turned 30 years old. Despite the death of their lead singer, an iteration Lynyrd Skynyrd still tours to this day.
He made the mark, beating his premonition by just 87 days. His gift came out in his music too, as his lyrics and style took a dark turn toward the end as well. “Ronnie was the only one of my children who had second sight,” his father used to brag.
‘I Never Dreamed’
Van Zant needed reinforcements on the tour, so he called Jo Jo Billingsley, who was the lead singer of The Honkettes and asked her to join the band on tour. In an interview years later she said: “That night I had the most vivid dream. I saw the plane smack the ground.”
“I saw them screaming and crying, and I saw fire. I woke up screaming, and my mom came running in going, ‘Honey what is it?’ I said ‘Mama, I dreamed the plane crashed!’ And she said, ‘No, honey, it’s just a dream.’ And I said, ‘No, mom, it’s too real!'” Unfortunately, it was all too real.
The last show
On the evening of Oct. 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd gathered for the last time in Greenville, South Carolina. They were on tour to promote their latest album “Street Survivors,” and had just finished a show at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium. They had to catch their flight for the next stop on the tour.
The next stop after a nearly 700-mile plane ride was Baton Rouge, where they’d play in a show at LSU the following night. Everyone took one look at the Convair CV-240 and were concerned, to say the least. The plane had done something terrifying just two days before that left the band petrified.
A janky plane
On their flight to Greenville coming from Florida, the plane managed to get into the air, but barely. Before this flight even took off, the band was unimpressed with its condition. It was 30 years old, and when the pilot guided the plane down the runway, a loud bang was heard from the starboard side.
A backfire that sounded like a gunshot was followed by a 10-foot stream of fire trailing the right engine with sparks flying. The plane eventually leveled out at 12,000 feet and after several minutes, the fire extinguished. The plane kept on flying, and to everyone’s relief, it made it to Greenville.
Aerosmith almost bought the plane from the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash
Earlier in 1977, there was another rock and roll band in the market for an airplane. Eerily, legendary rock group Aerosmith had representatives looking to buy the very Convair that carried Lynyrd Skynyrd to their demise. Aerosmith’s managers toured the plane and were extremely unimpressed with the plane’s condition as well as the staff that manned it.
The final straw came when they allegedly witnessed pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray passing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s back and forth. The plane may have held up, but the pilots failed their inspection, and that is why you are reading about Lynyrd Skynyrd instead of Aerosmith right now.
A bad purchase
No one wanted to get on the plane that night. It had flown close to 30,000 miles in its tenure, and originally it was seen as an upgrade. The band is from the Deep South (Van Zant hailed from Jacksonville, Florida) and short hops were the norm for them.
The plane passed manager Peter Rudge’s inspection, and three payments of $5,000 later, the plane was theirs. It was a substantially reduced price, and the savings were hard to justify when Rudge skipped the flight by opting for a first-class ticket on a commercial airliner. Word to the wise: If you have money to buy an airplane, don’t pay bottom dollar.
“Talked Myself Right into It”
Lynyrd Skynyrd may have been from the South, but their fans hailed from all over the country. This tour was supposed to see them fulfill their dream of playing in Madison Square Garden. The plan was to buy a new plane in Louisiana for the longer trips, but the band didn’t even want to make that flight.
Several surviving band members expressed their fears that night. Casey Gaines, the back-up singer and sister of Steve, actually hid in the back of their equipment truck until she was persuaded to get on the plane. In a chilling statement that tempted fate, Van Zant is reported to have said, “Hey, if the Lord wants you to die on this plane when it’s your time, it’s your time. Let’s go, man. We’ve got a gig to do.”
‘Was I Right or Wrong’
Van Zant was certainly a worker and was devoted to his fans, especially in the South. One of the reasons he forced the issue is because their biggest fan base was where they were going on that fateful night. It was expected that 10,000 fans would attend the concert.
Also, previous conversations show that he was indeed trying to tempt fate, and perhaps the plane crash is how he envisioned going out all along. Drummer Pyle recalled a story some years later and said, “Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he’d never live to see 30 and that he was going to go out with his boots on — in other words, on the road.”
In fashion true to their profession, Lynyrd Skynyrd lived the rock-n-roll life. One of their last hits was “That Smell,” whose title refers to, as the lyrics say, the “smell of death [that] surrounds you.” It’s an ominous song and starts with the true story of guitarist Gary Rossington drunkenly smashing his brand new Fort Torino into a tree (‘oak tree you’re in my way’).
It was one of the last songs Van Zant wrote, and months before his death he was said to have commented, “I had a creepy feeling things were going against us, so I thought I’d write a morbid song.” But even Van Zant probably didn’t bargain for what was going to come.
‘Honkey Tonk Night Time Man’
The rock and roll lifestyle includes its share of crazy stories, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was no different. They ere living fast and hard. Previously, they were fond of chartering flights in nicer planes, but word soon got out that transporting them in the air was a nightmare for pilots and crew.
A pattern of rowdy incidents occurred that made most private companies unwilling to work with them. On top of your run of the mill drunken debauchery, there were more serious incidents. There’s even a story of them trying to open a door and throw a roadie out of the plane at 13,000 feet.
Roadies, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the pilot and co-pilot boarded the plane that took off just after 5 p.m. There were 26 people in all, and the ride started much better than the previous flight. Just about everyone seemed a little scared, but eventually, they calmed down as they settled into the flight.
Van Zant even took a nap in the aisle. Some of the passengers played a poker game in the back, and the shenanigans were on (the game got heated when one of the players tore the table off the wall). For two and a half hours of the flight, their fear abated. And then it happened…
Trouble with the engines
One of the roadies, a man named Marc Frank, reported that he saw gasoline spewing out of the right engine while they were in flight (the same engine that was on fire the day before). Then suddenly, the engine stopped and the plane began to jolt violently in the air.
The pilots struggled to keep the plane level, and they were at a high risk of going into a spiral. Then the left engine stopped too. They were almost 10,000 feet in the air and both engines were out. Any feelings that they were going to make it quickly went away.
Reports say that the pilots, McCreary and Gray, were attempting to transfer fuel from one engine to the other (perhaps sensing a problem in the right engine), and instead jettisoned all of their remaining fuel (maybe now that story of them passing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s back and forth is starting to make more sense, though toxicology reports did say they were sober).
The plane was refueled in Greenville, and reports also say it had plenty of gas to make the journey, which helps support this theory. Either way, the reality was that the plane was up in the air and completely out of gas. It was a dire situation for even the most optimistic.
‘Lend a Helpin’ Hand’
Pyle was sitting back and watching events transpire, as he was a trained pilot. Everything was eerily silent; no one said anything. The whistling wind was all they heard, making it no secret to the passengers what happened to the engines. Pyle entered the cockpit and reported seeing fear washed over McCreary’s eyes.
McCreary ordered Pyle to get everyone in their seats and buckle up. He did as instructed and woke up Van Zant in the back of the plane. Several band members said Van Zant was very calm, and even a little annoyed that he had been woken up.
‘None of Us Are Free’
The pilots radioed to ground control units and found out they were too far from any airport to reasonably make an emergency landing on a runway. In fact, the closest one was 17 miles behind them. With steering capabilities greatly diminished and no propulsion, the pilots still decided to execute a turn.
The Convair jerked suddenly and before anyone knew it, the plane was a full 90 degrees sideways with wings fully perpendicular to the ground. The pilots were able to level the plane’s wings and for 10 long minutes, they glided through the air as the plane slowly descended toward earth.
A quiet prayer
As the plane lost altitude, reports by surviving passengers say that most people on board engaged in quiet prayer. There was just enough light outside to make endless clusters of treetops visible in a vast forest — no civilization as far as the eye could see. Help would take a while.
The band’s security manager, a man named Greg Odom, claimed he rushed the cockpit and yelled to the pilots, “I hope you two sons of bitches live through this, so I can kill both of you!” And as for Van Zant, some reports say he sat quietly, while Pyle claims he shook his hand before walking past him to his seat. “Ronnie knew that he was going to die,” Pyle later said.
‘End of the Road’
In what must’ve felt like an eternity, the plane finally descended into the trees. There were no roads, waterways, or open fields, so the plane carved its own path through the forest at 90 mph.
One of the band members said the trees sounded like a thousand baseball bats smacking the metal hull.
Then the wings tore off, the tail tore off, and the cockpit too with the pilots inside. With the remaining 24 passengers, the fuselage twisted on the ground and slid sideways for 500 feet against the branches and rocks along the forest floor. And then … and eerie silence consumed the site.
The immediate fall out of the Lynryd Skynryd plane crash
The carnage of the wreckage was a horrific scene involving twisted metal and fragile human tissue (heads up: this next part is quite bad). The two pilots hung from a tree. Road Manager Dean Kilpatrick lay dead in the swamp. The plane had broken apart into tiny little pieces, scattered about the forest floor.
Steve Gaines died on impact, and his sister Cassie was thrown from the plane and died shortly after the crash. As for Van Zant, all the premonitions and talk about his death finally produced the result he anticipated. He hit his head against the bulkhead and died immediately upon impact.
‘Hell or Heaven’
“When I heard that there had been a plane crash, I just knew Ronnie was one of the ones that didn’t make it,” said Van Zant’s wife Judy some years after the crash. “He told me so many times that I realized that he really knew what he was talking about.”
With Van Zant’s death, Lynyrd Skynyrd was effectively over for the moment. But there were still plenty of survivors, and many of them were in really bad shape. The plane was loaded with equipment and just about every seat was throttled from the floor. People started emerging from the twisted metal of the crash.
‘When You Got Good Friends’
When the plane was descending, just about everyone was praying except for Pyle. The former Marine was looking out the window for any sign of civilization. This was important because when he emerged from the wreckage (with many shattered ribs), he was able to orient himself and go look for help.
Two more passengers emerged from the carnage including roadie Marc Frank and sound engineer Ken Peden. Keyboarder Billy Powell climbed to the top of the fuselage and sat trying to absorb the gravity of what happened. He said he could hear bassist Leon Wilkeson screaming, “Get me out of here!”
Pyle thought he spotted a farm from the air, and with both Frank and Peden, he took off in that direction to look for help. In the darkness of the thickly forested swamp, Pyle said a snake slithered right up to him. In a book he wrote later he revealed that he said, “Snake, I will bite your head off.”
Determined to find help, they crossed a shallow creek and then crawled beneath a barbed-wire fence. Then they came upon a heard of cattle and feared they might be rushed by a bull. That would’ve been the least of their concerns, as momentarily they were confronted by dairy farmer Johnny Mote who welcomed Pyle and company kindly.
Mote was a 22-year-old dairy farmer who lived nearby and heard the commotion caused by the plane crash. There was also a prison nearby, and Mote assumed the noise had something to do with an escape. He was on high alert when he went to investigate the mysterious noises in the darkness of the forest.
When Frank, Peden, and Pyle emerged from the swamp, dirtied and bloodied. Mote told his wife to stay inside while he grabbed a shotgun. He then made his way outside and confronted the three men with a shot in the air (Pyle said the shot grazed his shoulder, a claim that was later been rebuked).
Help is on the way
The three men hit the dirt and started yelling that they weren’t trying to hurt to him but had just been in a plane crash. Though initially skeptical, eventually, Mote realized (probably in part due to the visible the injuries they had) they were telling the truth. He sprung into action, quickly mobilizing neighbors to head for the crash site.
By now, helicopters were on the scene and helped illuminate the crash site. Because of the lack of fuel in the engines, there were no explosions or fires. That was good for those who survived, but bad for those trying to help. Only muted screams and cries of agony could help locate the survivors.
A neighbor of Mote named Dwain Easley later said, “The first thing I saw was a bloody hand reaching out from the debris. Folks were all mashed together. We’d move one and there would be another one laying there.” Volunteer Fireman Jamie Wall reached the scene and began removing people out of the wreckage with a hatchet. Equipped with this ancient tool, Wall did his best to locate survivors. Luckily for the band, things began to take a turn for the positive.
Reports say that he tripped over many survivors in the dark and provided aid. In all, over 100 people found the crash-site and began helping the survivors. Even more descended on the site with ill intentions, as people started gathering wallets, watches, band paraphernalia, and even metal from the wreckage as souvenirs.
‘I’ve Seen Enough’
Despite what amounted to pilot error, it’s actually amazing that there were 20 plane crash survivors. The absence of fuel was a contributing factor for survival (once on the ground), but there was no shortage of broken bones, contusions, and lacerations. Wilkeson, who was heard screaming, was pulled from the wreckage and faced hours of operations to repair his teeth, legs, arms, and body.
Reports say his heart stopped twice on the operating table. Years later he claimed he was sitting on a cloud-shaped log with Van Zant and another musician who had died six years earlier. Wilkeson said, “Ronnie told me, ‘Boy, get yourself out of here, it’s not your time yet, get on out of here.”
‘One More Time’
“Street Survivors,” which had been released three days prior to the crash, ended up being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most successful album and achieved double-platinum status. At the insistence of Gaines’s wife, the album cover was changed because it morbidly depicted Gaines and other band members engulfed in flames. Obviously, this was done in poor taste, so it’s a good thing that the record label heeded Gaines’ call.
With their frontman and lead guitarist gone, and band members mangled from injuries, Lynyrd Skynyrd was all but dead. The band was revitalized 10 years later as Van Zant’s younger brother Johny took over as the frontman, but the new Lynyrd Skynyrd only featured one of the original band members, Gary Rossington.
‘The Needle and the Spoon’
The future was not bright for the band members that survived the crash. Guitarist Allen Collins lost his wife due to her pregnancy complications four years later, then was paralyzed in a car crash and later died of pneumonia. Wilkeson’s time eventually did come, as he died of complications from years of substance abuse.
Billy Powell also died years later of a heart attack at the age of 56. Death hovered over the group like the movie Final Destination and made the song “That Smell” and its lyrics even more eerie, prophetic, and popular: “the smell of death surrounds you!”
Artimus Pyle walked away from the crash with mere cuts and bruises, and his is perhaps the most enduring tale after the crash. He became the headliner of the Artimus Pyle Band and rocked with them until he joined the revival of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987. He was with them for four years before quitting, citing legal troubles with Van Zandt’s wife Judy as his reason for leaving. It’s unfortunate for a group of musicians that were once as close as brothers.
He attempted to revive the Artimus Pyle Band, but he found himself in hot water with attempted capital battery among other serious charges in 1992. More recently, he tried to help produce a documentary about the band, but a judge put the kibosh on that because he didn’t adhere to a 1987 agreement that required him to include at least three original band members in the project.
As for Van Zant, he was brought to his home and put to rest in Jacksonville, Florida. Prior to this, his father came to identify his son’s body and gave band members some reassuring words: “Ronnie is fine, you just get better and rest.” As for Ronnie Van Zant, his body was interned with his favorite cane fishing pole, and a quintessential black top hat wrapped in snakeskin.
Grave robbers disturbed his final resting place and Van Zant’s coffin was moved into a concrete structure with constant security. Perhaps he’s still sitting on that cloud log waiting for his family and the rest of his bandmates to join him, singing “Sweet Home Alabama” (‘carry me home to see my kin’) while he casts his fishing line underneath “where the skies are so blue.”