On October 20, 1977, a Convair 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 vocalist/founding member 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 all died as a result of the crash. Twenty others survived.
On October 20, 1977, three days after releasing their album Street Survivors, Lynyrd Skynyrd's chartered Convair CV-240 airplane ran out of fuel near the end of their flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The band had just performed at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium and were to play at Louisiana State University upon arriving in Baton Rouge.
Upon realizing that the plane had insufficient fuel, the pilots attempted an emergency landing on a small rural airstrip. Despite their efforts, the plane crashed in a forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Lead singer/founding member Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and copilot William Gray all died in the crash.
Cassie Gaines had been so fearful of flying in the Convair that she had preferred to travel in the band's cramped equipment truck instead, but Ronnie Van Zant convinced her to board the plane on October 20. Keyboardist Billy Powell's nose was nearly torn off as he suffered severe facial lacerations and deep lacerations to his right leg. Decades later Powell gave a lurid account of the flight's final moments on a VH1 Behind The Music special. He said Van Zant, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, was thrust violently upward and died immediately when his head impacted the roof. Elements of Powell's version of the events, however, have been disputed by both Artimus Pyle and Judy Van Zant Jenness, who posted the autopsy reports on the band's web site in early 1998 to "set the record straight", while essentially confirming Powell's account.
Another member of The Honkettes, JoJo Billingsley, was not on the plane; she was home sick and planned to join the tour in Little Rock, Arkansas, on October 23. Billingsley said that she had dreamed of the plane crash and begged guitarist/founding member Allen Collins by telephone not to continue using the Convair.
It was later discovered that the same Convair CV-240 had been earlier inspected by members of Aerosmith's flight crew for possible use in 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, told of observing pilots McCreary and Gray sharing a bottle of Jack Daniel's while he and his father inspected the plane. Aerosmith's touring family were quite shaken after receiving word of the crash, as Steven Tyler and Joe Perry had earlier pressured their management into renting that specific plane for use on their 1977 American tour.
On the American Top 40 show of February 25, 1978, Casey Kasem reported that musical act LeBlanc & Carr had been bumped from the ill-fated flight. The bands were touring together, and last-minute changes prevented the duo from boarding the plane after initially being offered seats.
Keyboardist Billy Powell, among others, spoke of seeing flames shooting out of the plane's right engine during a flight just days before the crash. The subsequent NTSB report listed "an engine malfunction of undetermined nature" in that same engine as a contributing factor in the crash.
Drummer Artimus Pyle told Howard Stern years later in an interview that the fuel gauge in the older-model plane was known to malfunction and the pilots had neglected to manually check the tanks before taking off. In his book Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock, Gene Odom comes to the conclusion that copilot Gray was potentially impaired and had been observed using cocaine the previous evening; however, toxicology reports from both pilots' autopsies found no traces of alcohol or other drugs. "Crew inattention to fuel supply" was ultimately determined to be responsible for the crash.
After the accident, the NTSB removed, inspected, and tested the right engine's ignition magneto and found it to be operating normally, concluding, "No mechanical or electrical discrepancies were found during the examination of the right magneto." The inspection also determined that "All of the fuel cross-feed and fuel dump valves were in the closed position."