Forty years ago today the plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd, their road crew, tour manager, and two pilots crashed in a heavily wooded area north of Gillsburg Mississippi, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines. Four others, backup singer Cassie Gaines, the tour manager and both pilots also died in the accident, and several others suffered serious injuries. The band had finished playing a venue in Greenville South Carolina and were headed for their next gig at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge when the pilots radioed the plane was low on fuel. Air traffic controllers diverted the plane to a McComb-Pike County Airport, but the plane came down five miles short of the runway.
Tom Farrier, former director of safety at the Air Transport Association, details the findings of the investigation that followed the crash. Quoting the NTSB accident report he writes, “The National Transportation Safety Board determines 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.” In a twin engine prop plane that could hold 1,550 gallons of fuel the accident investigators found about a quart remaining.
A car running out of gas is an annoyance. A plane running out of fuel is a tragedy. Both are 100% preventable, so what happened?
Farrier’s analysis of the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash expands to cover other air crashes of celebrities and concludes that fame itself is a leading factor in the cause of these accidents. “Consider: High-profile performers like Patsy Cline, Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and Jiles Richardson (the “Big Bopper”), Jim Croce, Ricky Nelson, Aaliyah, Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, Audie Murphy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jenni Rivera, Soundarya, and most of Reba McEntire’s band all died in non-scheduled aircraft crashes. Whole sports teams and NASCAR crews have been decimated in such events, as well as individual standouts like Roberto Clemente. Hale Boggs, Nick Begich, Mickey Leland and Ted Stevens — all current or retired members of Congress — died under similar circumstances, as did sitting Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown (in a dedicated VIP airlift aircraft)…”
“These were for the most part people used to getting their way, or perhaps were surrounded by people who would be jerks on their behalf. A depressing number of the accidents in which they perished involved dodgy weather or other factors — like overloading — that were duly laid at the feet of the pilots in the investigation reports. I also note the periodic involvement of fairly young/inexperienced pilots in such narratives… the kinds who can be pushed into doing things that defy good judgment or common sense.”
It’s a lesson that the rich and famous can still learn today 40 years after the original band that defined the term “Southern Rock” was silenced.