What Happened to the Survivors of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash?
A horrific plane crash took the lives of members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, their road crew and both the pilot and co-pilot on Oct. 20, 1977, irrevocably altering the course of the Southern rock outfit, their families and music history.
Frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines, were lost. Dean Kilpatrick, a personal assistant to the band, also died. The rest of those onboard suffered various injuries, the majority of them severe. Some passengers, in fact, were unable to make their way out of the wooded swampland in Gillsburg, Miss., a tiny town on the border of Louisiana where Lynyrd Skynyrd's Convair CV-240 went down.
Drummer Artimus Pyle and two crew members sought help from a local farmer some distance away. The recovery effort was slow and laborious, first as rescue and emergency personnel struggled to reach the crash victims – and then as Lynyrd Skynyrd began their own lengthy healing process.
During the decades since, some initial survivors have passed away, while others did their best to endure. Many dealt with their own demons in the wake of the disaster. Eventually, they returned to music – and then to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Here are their stories.
Allen Collins suffered a cervical spine injury; he also almost lost his right arm after suffering a severe gash, according to Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock. A couple years later, the guitarist got together with fellow Skynyrd member and guitarist Gary Rossington to form the Rossington Collins Band.
Tragedy struck again: Collins' wife Kathy died of a hemorrhage when she suffered a miscarriage while he was on the inaugural Rossington Collins Band tour in 1980. Following the 1982 dissolution of that group, he created the Allen Collins Band, which included bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell – both of whom were also key parts of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Collins' battles with depression, various substance addictions and law enforcement – he was reportedly arrested 18 times between 1974 and 1985 – came to a head Jan. 29, 1986, when he crashed his brand new Ford Thunderbird. The one-car accident killed his passenger, girlfriend Debra Watts. Collins was left paralyzed from the waist down, and charged with DUI manslaughter, ultimately receiving two years’ probation.
Unable to perform, Collins served as musical director for the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour, which kicked off some 20 years after the crash in 1987. Two years later, the incapacitated guitarist contracted pneumonia. Collins lost that fight, succumbing to respiratory failure on Jan. 23, 1990 – almost four years to the day after his crippling car accident. Collins was 37 years old.
Known as the “Mad Hatter of Southern Rock” due to his predilection to wearing caps of all fanciful shapes and sizes onstage, Leon Wilkeson suffered such a catastrophic arm injury that he had to reconfigure his bass so that he could play it in a unique, almost upright style. He also broke his leg and suffered a chest wound in the plane crash. Wilkeson’s heart failed twice at the scene, according to Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock. His teeth had also been knocked out.
Wilkeson stayed close to his Skynyrd brethren in both the Rossington Collins Band and Allen Collins Band, then joined them for the tribute tour in 1987 and onward. Bad luck followed. While on the road in the early '90s, a sleeping Wilkeson had his throat slit aboard the Lynyrd Skynyrd tour bus. Guitarist Ed King blamed Wilkeson’s wife for the injury, while she claimed it was King in an infamous article published by Spin. No one ever figured out who did it.
Wilkeson was subsequently found dead in a hotel room July 27, 2001, at the age of 49. He had been dealing with liver and lung disease, and a combination of the two seems to have played a role. His passing was chalked up to “natural causes.”
Billy Powell’s nose was nearly sliced off completely in the crash; he also suffered a right knee injury. Yet the keyboardist became the de facto spokesman for the band in the weeks that followed, giving updates on those still in the hospital to both print and broadcast media with stitches tracked across his deeply bruised face.
Like Wilkeson, Powell joined the Rossington Collins Band, the Allen Collins Band and then the reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd. Along the way, he earned generations of new admirers through sturdy live interpretations "Free Bird," "Tuesday's Gone," "What's Your Name" and "Sweet Home Alabama," all of which featured notable contributions from Powell. He was on a break from Lynyrd Skynyrd's regular touring schedule in 2009 when he suffered a heart attack. Powell was 56.
The sole member of Lynyrd Skynyrd to literally walk away from the mangled plane, Artimus Pyle’s physical wounds somehow consisted of only cuts and abrasions. A couple of years later, however, Pyle had to bow out of the Rossington Collins Band after a motorcycle accident left his leg broken in 20 places.
He later returned to music as leader of the Artimus Pyle Band before reconvening with Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1987 until the early '90s. He departed after recording of Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, citing the toll from continued legal battles between the surviving band members and Ronnie Van Zant’s widow Judy.
After that, the drummer dealt with serious run ins with the law, and more court cases, while reviving the Artimus Pyle Band. He pleaded guilty and received probation on charges of attempted capital battery, and lewd and lascivious assault in the presence of a child in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1992. Fifteen years later, he was arrested for not properly registering as a sex offender after his address changed. The case went to trial, and he was acquitted in 2009.
More recently, his involvement in a proposed biopic called Street Survivor: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash led to new legal issues. A U.S. district judge halted production permanently, finding Pyle in violation of a 1987 consent order which prohibits anyone from participating in a band-related project without the participation of at least three surviving members from Lynyrd Skynyrd's pre-crash era.
Gary Rossington was the most critically injured survivor of the 1977 plane crash, having broken both arms and wrists, both legs and ankles, and his pelvis. While his road to recuperation might’ve been the longest, the guitarist has also made the most of his second musical chance: He co-founded the Rossington Collins Band, and later the Rossington Band with his wife Dale-Krantz Rossington, then became the driving force behind Lynyrd Skynyrd's reunion – and, eventually, its final remaining original member.
Still, Rossington has had to deal with his fair share of obstacles and setbacks. A well-publicized drug and alcohol addiction was immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "That Smell," a cautionary tale written by Collins and Van Zant after Rossington plowed his new car into an oak tree and then a house after passing out at the wheel. He's since sobered up, only to face a series of health issues.
Rossington suffered a heart attack in late 2015, and had surgery to repair blockage in his arteries the following year. Still, he soldiers on, waving the Lynyrd Skynyrd flag proudly – and even reviving the Rossington Band with a 2016 LP that was appropriately titled Take It on Faith.