Several members of the band died in a plane crash that occurred on October 20, 1977, three days after the release of Street Survivors. A chartered Convair 240, N55VM, carrying the band between shows from Greenville, South Carolina to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana crashed near a forest in McComb, Mississippi. The crash killed singer/songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. Other band members were injured, some very seriously.
Drummer Artimus Pyle crawled out of the plane wreckage with several broken ribs, but was ambulatory, as were road crew members Kenneth Peden Jr. and Mark Frank. The three injured men hiked some distance from the crash site, through swampy woods, and finally flagged down farmer Johnny Mote, who had come to investigate. Varying accounts have Mote either firing a warning shot into the air 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. Video of a barechested Pyle at the 1979 Volunteer Jam does not show evidence of a gunshot wound.
Medical personnel arrived and began to ferry out the injured and the dead. Allen Collins suffered two cracked vertebrae in his neck, and both Collins and 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. Gary Rossington broke both his arms and both his legs in the crash, and took many months to recuperate. Leslie Hawkins sustained a concussion, broke her neck in three places and had severe 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. Victims were taken to the hospital in McComb, Mississippi by ambulances and other vehicles. Road crew member Steve Lawler, who suffered severe contusions and facial lacerations, was taken to the hospital in a pickup with a camper top.
Pianist Billy Powell survived but his nose was nearly torn off and he suffered severe facial lacerations. 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 backing 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 website in early 1998 in order to set the record straight. Despite this faux pas, Powell has been on good terms with the remaining band members since the incident. Pyle did confirm (from Pyle's interview on the The Howard Stern Show on Sirius Satellite Radio, Feb. 12, 2007) that Van Zant's cause of death was trauma to the head caused by equipment, such as Betamax tapes and Trinitrons, flying forward in the plane's cabin.
Original cover for Street Survivors, 1977Notably, the third member of The Honkettes, JoJo Billingsley, was not on the plane and in fact was home tending to a family member's illness. She was planning to join the tour in Little Rock on October 23, three days after the crash. According to an interview in the book Freebirds, Billingsley had dreamed of the plane crash and begged Allen Collins by telephone not to continue using the Convair. On hearing of the accident, Billingsley was so shaken that some of her hair fell out.
The Convair 240 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. In an interview in the book Walk This Way, Aerosmith's assistant chief of flight operations Zunk Buker tells of seeing pilots McCreary and Gray trading a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth while Buker and his father were inspecting the plane. When Aerosmith's crew heard of Skynyrd's misfortune, they were shocked, but not necessarily surprised. 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.
Updated cover after plane crash, 1977The official NTSB accident report reads, "The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was fuel exhaustion and total loss of power from both engines due to crew inattention to fuel supply. Contributing to the fuel exhaustion were inadequate flight planning and an engine malfunction of undetermined nature in the right engine which resulted in higher-than-normal fuel consumption." It was known that the right engine's magneto — a small power generator 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 travelling party arrived in Baton Rouge. 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 this was the case, or that the pilots, panicking when the right engine failed, accidentally dumped the remaining fuel. 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.
Street Survivors became the band's second platinum album, and was the #5 top selling album on the U.S. album chart. The single "What's Your Name" reached #13 on the single airplay charts in January of 1978. Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded after the airplane tragedy. On the original pressing of the cover of Street Survivors was a photograph of the band engulfed in flames. MCA Records, out of courtesy, withdrew the sleeve and replaced it with a cover of the band striking a similar pose against a plain black background.