It is hard to pick the saddest date when it comes to music history. Perhaps it is the 8th of December, the date when John Lennon was murdered back in 1980. Or the 24th of November in 1991, when beloved Freddy Mercury left this world forever.
If these are two of the saddest dates that marked the 1980s and the 1990s respectively, one such date in the decade before them was October 20, 1977. On this day, three of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band members lost their lives in a tragic airplane crash.
The crash occurred only three days after the band released their fifth studio album, Street Survivors. As reports on the accident tell, the band was on their way to perform a scheduled performance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, following a performance at Greenville Memorial Auditorium.
The Convair CV-240 the band had chartered would, unfortunately, crash in a densely wooded area just outside Gillsburg, Mississipi. Upon impact, the accident claimed the lives of three Lynyrd Skynyrd members, their tour manager and assistant, the pilot, and the co-pilot in the cabin.
Months after the tragedy, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that held the plane’s crew members accountable for what happened. The report tells how the pilots required directions for an emergency landing. “We’re low on fuel and we’re just about out of it” one of them informed Houston Center at around 6:42 local time.
After that, the plane crew made an attempt at landing on a small strip, probably the only one available in the remote area. However, the plane’s bottom reportedly trimmed some of the trees, after which the plane crashed down in the woods. This happened roughly 13 minutes after the pilots communicated with the Houston center.
In the moment of impact, it would be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s singer, Ronnie Van Zant, as well as Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, respectively the guitarist and the vocalist of the rock band, to lose their lives. Cassie Gaines made it through the initial crash but passed away later on because he’d lost too much blood.
The Convair CV-240 plane crash further claimed the lives of Dean Kilpatrick, the band’s associate, and the pilot and co-pilot in the cabin, Walter McCreary and William Gray. The band’s drummer, Artimus Pyle, along with two other survivors dragged themselves out of the wrecked craft. They moved through the woods until stumbling upon a farmer who summoned much needed help.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s keyboardist Billy Powell, one of the 20 other survivors in the tragedy, suffered horrific injuries to his face, spine, and one of his knees. Following the tragedy he provided some shocking testimonies of what happened after the impact.
Powell recounted that Cassie Gaines’ last moments of life were extremely painful, and he had said that she had a deep cut on her throat, extending from ear to ear. Such statements outraged Judy Van Zant Jenness and Artimus Pyle as they regarded it as extreme. But when a 1998 autopsy report was published on the official website of the band, it confirmed what Powell testified on Cassie Gaines losing her life.
The strange thing is that earlier in 1977, Aerosmith band members had reportedly sought to rent the exact same Convair CV-240. Eventually, they had second thoughts due to concerns raised over both the safety of the plane and the seriousness of its crew.
The story is mentioned in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, a book written by Stephen Davis and co-written with Aerosmith band members. According to the book, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry expressed great interest in wanting to rent the Convair CV-240. Still, the answer had to be “no” following a check-up on the plane done by Zunk Buker, one of Aerosmith’s assistants. Buker recorded seeing pilots McCreary and Gray “passing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s back and forth while his father and he were inspecting the plane.”
There are a few more encounters related to the Convair CV-240. One of which came from Deborah Jo Billingsley, best noted for her work with the Honkettes and also for providing backing vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Billingsley did not board the Convair CV-240 on its ill-fated flight. At that point, she was sick and at home, with plans to meet the rock group in Little Rock, Arkansas, a few days afterward. One of her later claims was that she had a dream in which she witnessed a plane crash as well as seeing her friends dying. After her dream, she supposedly called Allen Collins, one of the band’s founding members, making arguments that they should not travel in the Convair.
Aerosmith said no to the plane and Billingsley allegedly sent a warning, but they boarded and the air crash did happen. At the moment the tragedy unfolded, Lynyrd Skynyrd was already a well established rock band, if not one of the most prominent of the 1970s. There probably wasn’t a living soul in those days who couldn’t sing at least a line from “Sweet Home Alabama” and then there were the rest of their hits, “Free Bird,” “Gimme Back My Bullets,” or “Gimme Three Steps” among others.
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These were all hits before their fifth album came out, which went Gold and Platinum quickly after the plane crash. Skynyrd members were also on the most ambitious headlining tour of their time, making the commute between scheduled concert dates. The plane crash meant putting a halt to the career of Lynyrd Skynyrd and for those who survived the crash things would never be the same again.