45 Years Gone: Lynyrd Skynyrd Drummer Talks 1977 Plane Crash

If Sothern Rock were defined by one band, it would be Lynyrd Skynyrd. From the mesmerizing opening chords of “Sweet Home Alabama” to the searing solos of “Free Bird”, Skynyrd is an American institution. They are revered as brilliant musicians, consummate entertainers, and exceptional songwriters. Music was never the same after Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lynyrd Skynyrd was never the same after October 20, 1977. This month marks the 45th anniversary of a disastrous plane crash that claimed six lives including three Skynyrd band members. Lead singer and chief songwriter Ronnie Van Zant was among the casualties. He was 29 years old. Others lost in the Gillsburg, Mississippi crash were background vocalist Cassie Gaines and her guitarist brother Steve. Also, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. The immense loss was felt throughout the entire music community.   

Lynyrd Skynyrd remains one of the most revolutionary and venerated bands of all time. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, their contributions to popular music cannot be overexaggerated. As the official Skynyrd bio states, they endure as “a cultural icon that appeals to all generations”. Possessing “a catalog of over 60 albums, sales beyond 30 million worldwide”. Skynyrd later picked up the pieces to reform in the wake of tragedy, but it was never the same. It doesn’t matter, their legend had already been solidified. Artimus Pyle played drums with Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1974 to 1977. He was also an unwilling participant in catastrophe. These are his reflections of the 1977 plane crash that killed six and devastated millions.

“They didn’t want to die, their families didn’t want them to die”, says Artimus in a 2021 interview conducted by journalist Jim Clash. Per his bio, “Thomas Delmer ‘Artimus’ Pyle was born July 15, 1948. Long considered the ‘wild man’ of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Artimus Pyle’s powerful and distinctive double bass drumming helped define the legendary Skynyrd sound”. In the fall of 1977, the band was on tour in support of their fifth studio album, “Street Survivors”. Their airplane took off from Greenville, South Carolina bound for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It never made it. Though it’s been 45 years; Pyle recalls the infamous crash with chilling clarity. His 2021 interview continues, “We thought surely our pilots would land at the closest airport, and get us off of the plane to refuel. But they didn’t. They made several fatal decisions”.

“They shouldn’t have ever taken off. We were morons, man. We were so happy just to have gigs that we didn’t question things when we should have. When I got on that plane, stepped onto the back and climbed up, Ronnie said, ‘Ok we’re all here, let’s go’. If Ronnie says go, then it’s go. But Ronnie knew his destiny. He told me in Tokyo, Japan, that he would never live to see 30. That he would go out with his boots on. At the time, I just said, ‘Oh Ronnie, don’t talk like that. You’re going to live forever’. Well, he was in his saddle with his boots on going to a gig on tour. Anyway, when we got on the plane, he and I shook hands, and I could see in his eyes that he knew”.

“At one point, we became a glider in the clouds looking for a hole to land. When we came out, we were over trees, close to the tops. I heard a guy named Clayton Johnson, who worked for Bill Graham and was looking out of the window, say one word, ‘Trees’. All the while I was playing stewardess, going back and forth from the cockpit, saying, ‘Put out your damn cigarettes, tighten your seat belts, brace for impact, get something to put in your lap’. When I went back to the cockpit for the last time, the pilot turned around. His eyes were bugged out, in shock. He said, ‘Artimus, you had better go back and strap yourself in’. What I really heard him say was, ‘If you want to live, you had better get out of this cockpit.'” 

“What am I supposed to do, punch the guy in the face and drag him out of the cockpit when we’re that close to the ground, then fly the plane myself? Years later, I thought about it. Why didn’t I do that? The pilot and copilot didn’t know what they were doing. So I went back to the cabin like a zombie, for the last time, sat behind Cassie Gaines, over the left wing. The impact was like a thousand people with baseball bats repeatedly beating on the side of the fuselage. The whole thing lasted about 12 seconds. I looked out of my window, and saw the left wing come off with the engine. And then everything went completely silent. I will never forget that silence as long as I live…I knew I had to live until I could get some help. I thought I was dying”.

See part two for the conclusion of the Artimus Pyle interview. 

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