1977 Convair CV-300 crash
|Date||October 20, 1977, at 18:52 (CST).|
|Summary||Engine failure due to fuel exhaustion. Aircraft destroyed on impact during emergency landing attempt.|
|Site||Heavily-wooded swamp, Amite County, five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi
|Aircraft type||Convair CV-300 (first flew in 1948)|
|Operator||L & J Company of Addison, Texas|
|Flight origin||Greenville, South Carolina|
|Stopover||McComb-Pike County Airport, Pike County, Mississippi (emergency attempt)|
|Destination||Baton Rouge, Louisiana|
On October 20, 1977, a Convair CV-300 (a converted CV-240) chartered by the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd from L&J Company of Addison, Texas, ran out of fuel and crashed in Gillsburg, Mississippi, near the end of its flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve's older sister), assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed as a result of the crash. Twenty others survived.
On 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 CV-300 ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina, where they had just performed at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, and were en route to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Though the pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small airstrip, the plane crashed in a forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve's older sister), 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. Guitarist Allen Collins suffered two cracked vertebrae in his neck, and both Collins and bassist 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. Guitarist 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. Backing vocalist 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 web site in early 1998 in order to set the record straight. Powell was castigated in print by Pyle and Van Zant Jenness for needlessly upsetting the Gaines family. Nevertheless, Powell remained on good terms with the remaining band members.
Drummer Artimus 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. 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 CV-300 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 magnetos — an ignition device 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, instead of transferring it to the left engine. 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. 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.
After the accident, the NTSB removed, inspected, and tested the right engine's magnetos and found it to be operating normally concluding "No mechanical or electrical discrepancies were found during the examination of the right magneto." An inspection of the crossfeed and fuel dump controls found them to be in the closed position concluding "All of the fuel crossfeed and fuel dump valves were in the closed position." 
- U.S. National Transportation Safety Board 1978, p. 3.
- ASN Aircraft accident Convair CV-300 N55VM Gillsburg, MS; Retrieved 9/3/11
- "ASN Aircraft Accident Convair CV-300 N55VM Gillsburg MS". Flight Safety. org website: Aviation Safety network. 19 June 1978. Retrieved 6 July 2013.
- Pat Adams; Pat Adams and Jaquelyn Cooper (20 October 1977). "The Tragic Plane Crash. What Happened? Gillsburg, MS". The Southern Tribute. Archived from the original on 2013-07-11. Retrieved 6 July 2013.
- Brant 2002, p. 155.
- Brant 2002.
- Brant 2002, p. 147.
- Brant 2002, p. 151.
- Davis 1997, p. 304.
- U.S. National Transportation Safety Board 1978, Sec 3.2 Probable Cause, p. 16.
- Brant, Marley (2002). Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story. Billboard Books. ISBN 0-8230-8321-7. Retrieved 2008-10-18.
- Davis, Stephen (1997). Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-380-97594-7. Retrieved 2008-10-18.
- NTSB brief of crash
- The Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash
- Gillsburg, MS Plane Crash Kills Lynyrd Skynyrd Band Members, Oct 1977
- Official Lynyrd Skynyrd website
- Official Lynyrd Skynyrd History site