Lynyrd Skynyrd was on a roll. With album sales building and their fanbase expanding, they were one of the biggest southern rock acts of the 70s. But then on at 5:02 pm EDT on October 20, 1977, they took off on a chartered plane in Greensville, South Carolina, after filing a flight plane that called for a two hour and forty-five-minute 650-mile hop to Baton Rouge. They never made it. And although we know that the crash was caused by the plane running out of fuel, why did that happen in the first place?
The plane was a 30-year-old Convair CV-240, a twin-engine prop owned and operated by L&J Company and sometimes used by touring bands. There were stories about malfunctioning fuel gauges combined with pilot negligence when it came to manually checking the fuel tanks. Earlier in the year, Aerosmith’s people had looked at the plane but felt that both the equipment and the plane weren’t safe, so they passed. Skynyrd did not.
Twenty-six passengers and crew boarded in Greensville, although the plane was rated for just 24. (Originally, the CV-240 could carry 40 people, but because this plane had been outfitted with things like tables and couches, there was far less room.)
Take off was normal and the plane soon reached cruising altitude. But then over Mississippi, something went wrong. The plane was out of gas. The pilot radioed a fuel emergency and attempted a landing at a small rural strip. They didn’t make it, crashing in a wooded swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi. Singer Ronnie Van Zandt wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was thrown out of the plane and hit a tree, killing him instantly. Guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick were also killed, along with pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray.
Among the twenty survivors, many were terribly injured. Billy Powell, the keyboard player, almost had his nose torn off. There were many broken bones and lacerations.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated, ultimately ruling that “the probable cause 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 which resulted in higher-than-normal fuel consumption.”
In other words, it ran out of gas and fell out of the sky. But again we need to ask, how could something like this happen in the first place? There’s a great article in Forbes that looks at all the particulars of the crash and raises some pretty serious questions.
The NTSB report specifically states that a normally operating aircraft of this type, having flown the time it had prior to impact, should have had about 207 gallons of fuel aboard if it had started out with what they stated on their flight plan. The investigators found the wreckage had about a quart of fuel in it. The Board ruled out any possibility of a fuel leak or the aircraft having been fueled with less than what supposedly had been provided at prior fuel stops. As far as the improperly functioning engine was concerned, the investigators concluded that running it on “auto-rich” the entire flight should’ve burned a maximum of perhaps 70 gallons over and above normal consumption.
It appears the aircraft had only flown perhaps 85 to 90% of their intended route of flight when the pilots realized they were basically out of gas, and they took 2+40 just to cover that distance; they probably would have needed at least another 20 minutes or so to get from where they were to Baton Rouge (BTR) when they made the decision to reverse course and try to make McComb (MCB).
According to the accident report, there weren’t any headwinds getting in their way at all — just a pretty benign amount of crosswind from the northwest that would have required a relatively minor amount of correction. The Convair 240’s advertised cruise speed is about 250 knots, and their ground speed shouldn’t have been much different from that based on winds aloft.
So, their flight plan’s time was so far off that it almost seems like they had no real idea how long it would actually take them, or something was seriously slowing them down along their entire route of flight. On the surface at least, it also seems like they never even looked at their fuel gauges throughout the flight.
It gets substantially weirder. Keep reading.