In the summer of 1977, members of the rock band Aerosmith inspected an airplane they were considering chartering for their upcoming tour—a Convair 240 operated out of Addison, Texas. Concerns over the flight crew led Aerosmith to look elsewhere—a decision that saved one band but doomed another. The aircraft in question was instead chartered by the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, who were just setting out that autumn on a national tour that promised to be their biggest to date. On this day in 1977, however, during a flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tour plane crashed in a heavily wooded area of southeastern Mississippi during a failed emergency landing attempt, killing band-members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines as well as the band’s assistant road manager and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot. Twenty others survived the crash.
The original core of Lynyrd Skynyrd—Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom—first came together under the name “My Backyard” back in 1964, as Jacksonville, Florida, teenagers. Under that name and several others, the group developed its chops playing local and regional gigs throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, then finally broke out nationally in 1973 following the adoption of the name “Lynyrd Skynyrd” in honor of a high school gym teacher/nemesis named Leonard Skinner. The newly renamed band scored a major hit with their hard-driving debut album (pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd) (1973), which featured one of the most familiar and joked-about rock anthems of all time, “Free Bird.” Their follow-up album, Second Helping (1974), included the even bigger hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” and it secured the band’s status as giants of the southern rock subgenre.
On October 17, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd—now in a lineup that included backup singer Cassie Gaines and her guitarist brother, Steve—released their fifth studio album, Street Survivors, which would eventually be certified double-platinum. Three days later, however, tragedy struck the group when their chartered Convair 240 began to run out of fuel at 6,000 feet en route to Baton Rouge. The plane’s crew, whom the National Transportation Safety Board would hold responsible for the mishap in the accident report issued eight months later, radioed Houston air-traffic control as the plane lost altitude, asking for directions to the nearest airfield. “We’re low on fuel and we’re just about out of it,” the pilot told Houston Center at approximately 6:42 pm. “We want vectors to McComb [airfield] poste-haste please, sir.” Approximately 13 minutes later, however, the plane crashed just outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi.