Lynyrd Skynyrd Nearly Canceled the Doomed Flight That Killed 4 Band Members

You might know American classic rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd for their hit songs like “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” which have earned the musicians a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But shortly after “Free Bird” was released in the early 1970s, the band experienced a free-falling plane crash tragedy. The 1977 accident, when the plane that the band chartered met a fiery demise in Mississippi, led to years of speculation about the causes behind the accident. Historical archives and interviews have revealed just how close Lynyrd Skynyrd came to nearly avoiding the doomed flight. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd (L-R) Leon Wilkeson, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle (Top), Steve Gaines and Billy Powell looking at the camera not smiling, in black and white
Lynyrd Skynyrd (L-R) Leon Wilkeson, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Artimus Pyle (Top) Steve Gaines and Billy Powell | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lynyrd Skynyrd was formed just a few years before the band’s tragic accident

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Lynyrd Skynyrd was formed in 1964. According to Lynyrd Skynyrd History, which is run by Judy Van Zant Jenness (the widow of the band’s original lead singer Ronnie Van Zant), the band’s original lineup consisted of Van Zant, plus Bob Burns (drummer), Gary Rossington (guitarist), Allen Collins (guitarist) and Larry Junstrom (bassist).

A few years after their inception, the band became well known in their home city of Jacksonville, Florida. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first studio album was certified platinum, and stadiums around the country were soon filled with fans singing along to songs like “Gimme Three Steps,” “Saturday Night Special” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Over the decades, Rolling Stone has consistently ranked them as one of the top 100 musicians of all time.

Unfortunately, Van Zant and many of  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s original lineup didn’t get to celebrate their successes for very long.

The plane in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s crash was rejected by another famous band

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Lynyrd Skynyrd wasn’t the only rock band achieving mainstream success in the 1970s. Aerosmith was also making it big, and they were looking at chartering a private plane to take them around America for various concerts. However, Aerosmith had misgivings about the specific plane and crew that they were considering.

According to Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, a book co-written by Aerosmith’s members and published in 1997, the band was inspecting the plane when they caught the pilots drinking whiskey. “Concerns over the flight crew led Aerosmith to look elsewhere—a decision that saved one band but doomed another,” reports History

Aerosmith passed, and Lynyrd Skynyrd commissioned the plane and its pilots instead. But there were soon signs of trouble.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s private plane crashed in 1977

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Rolling Stone reports that two days before the fateful crash, Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the exact same plane when they saw “10-foot flames … shooting out of the right engine.” The publication notes that the incident scared the band, who swore they would upgrade to a newer, better-maintained plane in the future.

Two days later, the band boarded the plane for the very last time. Rolling Stone notes that several members of the band and their entourage thought it was a bad idea and wanted to cancel the flight, including guitarist Collins and Cassie Gaines, one of their backup singers. According to the publication, Van Zant assured them that if it was their time to go, it was their time to go.

On October 20, 1977, approximately three hours after Van Zant told them that, the plane ran out of gas and crashed in a field near Gillsburg, Mississippi. The accident killed the pilot and copilot. Other casualties included Lynyrd Skynyrd’s assistant road manager, Cassie Gaines, Steve Gaines, and Ronnie Van Zant.

History notes that “the National Transportation Safety Board would hold [the pilots] responsible for the mishap.” Today, the crash site is a popular memorial where fans gather to pay tribute to the lost band members.

“Three large granite markers were put up in Gillsburg in 2019,” reports ABC News. “The monument has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in southwest Mississippi, since drawing 4,500 people from 13 countries, 39 states and five Canadian provinces.”