The plane crash that almost ended Lynyrd Skynyrd

When Lynyrd Skynyrd first began recording songs, their slogan was, “If we don’t make it, we’ll die trying.” In 1964, Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Larry Junstrom, and Bob Burns founded the band. Hits like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird,” and “Simple Man” brought them enormous fame, but in October 1977, natural disasters nearly put an end to the group.

Lynyrd Skynyrd played a show at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium just two days after releasing their album Street Survivors. They were scheduled to arrive in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the next day when they boarded a Convair CV-240 aircraft. The airplane ran out of fuel, therefore the flight was canceled.

When the pilots realized they were out of fuel, they attempted to steer the aircraft to McComb Airport, but it quickly became evident the aircraft would not make it that far. They decided to make an emergency landing in a field instead. The plane descended, glided over a line of trees, struck a large tree, and broke apart.

The guitarist, Gary Rossington said, “I remember most of it, the rapid descent, the screaming, my friends in pain like something out of Vietnam. Waking up with the plane door on top of me.”

Six of the twenty passengers on board, including Robert Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Allen Collins, and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, died in the disaster. The tragedy, which caused the band’s career to be suspended for more than a decade, continues to haunt the band’s surviving members.

“We didn’t die, so we had unanswered questions as to why them and not us? We all believe in God because we’ve been through so much and yet we carried on. The crash has been brought up every day to us, since then. The main thing is we lost our best friends – that’s the hardest part. Our motto when we started was, ‘If we don’t make it, we’ll die trying.’ And we made it but at a terrible cost.”

After the disaster, the band found it difficult to record because of the trauma that followed in addition to the fact that several of them died in it. Guilt might ensue when someone survives an incident but others do not, and grief can be difficult to deal with. Only after a decade did Lynyrd Skynyrd reunite with Johnny, the brother of Ronnie Van Zant.

Rossington said, “We are so blessed to have all these chances, we had a second chance to do this, and we continued. What else is life about than to live it?… You’re a fool to not live your dream. It’s unbelievable people still love our music and come out for us every night. We’re thankful.”

Often, it takes a near-death experience to bring life’s beauty to light. Eventually, Lynyrd Skynyrd returned to the stage with a newfound zeal that let them honor the people they loved and enjoy the act of playing.



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