Tuesday, October 20, 2009

32 Years Ago Today: Lynyrd Skynyrd's Plane Crashes in Mississippi...

On Thursday, October 20, 1977, just three days after the release of 'Street Survivors', and five shows into their most successful headlining tour to date, Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair 240 ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina, where they had just performed at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Though the pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small airstrip, the plane crashed in a forest in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed on impact. Medical personnel arrived quickly and began to ferry out the injured and the dead. Victims were taken to the hospital in nearby McComb and Jackson by ambulances and other vehicles. Allen Collins suffered two cracked vertebrae in his neck, and both Collins and Leon Wilkeson nearly had arms amputated as a result of crash injuries. Wilkeson suffered severe internal injuries, including a punctured lung, and had most of his teeth knocked out. Gary Rossington broke both of his arms, his right leg and his pelvis in the crash, as well as sustaining puncture wounds to his stomach and liver, and took many months to recuperate. Leslie Hawkins sustained a concussion (which led to ongoing neurological problems), broke her neck in three places and had severe facial lacerations. Road crew member Steve Lawler suffered severe contusions and facial lacerations. Security manager Gene Odom was seriously burned on his arm and face and lost the sight in one eye as a result of an emergency flare on board the plane that was activated during the crash. Keyboardist Billy Powell's nose was nearly torn off as he suffered severe facial lacerations (as well as deep lacerations to his right knee), and he later caused a controversy by giving a lurid account of Cassie Gaines' final moments on a VH1 Behind The Music special about the band, claiming that the backup singer's throat was cut from ear to ear and that she bled to death in his arms. Powell also claimed that Ronnie Van Zant's head had been smashed. Powell's version of events has been discounted by both Artimus Pyle and Judy Van Zant Jenness, who posted the autopsy reports on the band's website in early 1998 in order to set the record straight. Despite this faux pas, Powell remained on good terms with the remaining band members since the incident, but was castigated in print by Pyle and Van Zant Jenness for needlessly upsetting the Gaines family.

Pyle, the only band member who was ambulatory, crawled out of the plane wreckage with several broken ribs, and hiked some distance from the crash site through swampy woods with road crew members Kenneth Peden, Jr. and Marc Frank. The three injured men finally flagged down farmer Johnny Mote, who had come to investigate. Varying accounts have Mote either firing a warning shot into the air (believing the bedraggled men to be escapees from a nearby penitentiary) or actually shooting Pyle in the shoulder — no report is completely reliable. Pyle claimed in a February 2007 appearance on Howard Stern's Sirius radio program that Mote had shot him; Mote has always denied shooting the drummer. Video of a barechested Pyle at the 1979 Volunteer Jam does not show evidence of a gunshot wound. In 1996, Pyle called Mote to thank him for his help after the plane crash.

Notably, the third member of The Honkettes, JoJo Billingsley, was not on the plane and in fact was home sick; she had been planning to join the tour in Little Rock, Arkansas on October 23. Billingsley claimed that she had dreamed of the plane crash and begged Allen Collins by telephone not to continue using the Convair.

The Convair 240 itself had been inspected by members of Aerosmith's flight crew for possible use in the early summer of 1977, but was rejected because it was felt that neither the plane nor the crew were up to standards. Aerosmith's assistant chief of flight operations Zunk Buker tells of seeing pilots McCreary and Gray trading a bottle of Jack Daniel's back and forth while he and his father were inspecting the plane. Aerosmith's touring family was also relieved because the band, specifically Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, had been trying to pressure their management into renting that specific plane.

It was known that the right engine's magneto — a small power generator that provides spark and timing for the engine — had been malfunctioning (Powell, among others, spoke of seeing flames shooting out of the right engine on a trip just prior to the accident), and that pilots McCreary and Gray had intended to repair the damaged part when the traveling party arrived in Baton Rouge. Cassie Gaines was reportedly so fearful of flying in the Convair that she offered to ride in the band's equipment truck instead; Ronnie Van Zant had talked her onto the airplane on October 20. It is possible that the damaged magneto fooled the pilots into creating an exceptionally rich fuel mixture, causing the Convair to run out of fuel. It was suggested on the VH-1 Behind The Music profile on Skynyrd that the pilots, panicking when the right engine failed, accidentally dumped the remaining fuel. Pyle maintains in the Howard Stern interview that the fuel gauge in the older model plane malfunctioned and the pilots had failed to manually check the tanks before taking off, although it is common practice in all but the largest transport-category aircraft to manually check fuel quantities to verify fuel gauge indications. In his book Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock, Gene Odom makes an unsubstantiated accusation that co-pilot William Gray was impaired because he had spent part of the previous night snorting cocaine; the toxicology reports from both pilots' autopsies had found them to be clean for drugs and alcohol.

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