FORBES interviews Artimus Pyle, Honoring The Legacy, 45 Years After The Plane CrashOctober 27, 2022 / No Comments
Artimus Pyle honors the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd in this Forbes interview. He also discusses his movie “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash”. PYLETRIBE has three songs featured in the movie, which are available for streaming via Madison Records /The Orchard.
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NASHVILLE, TN – JANUARY 30: Artimus Pyle performs during The Gift Of Music Concert at Ryman … [+]GETTY IMAGES
More than four decades after he survived the crash that took the lives of three of his fellow Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates, including lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant, Artimus Pyle still feels the loss.
“It’s been 45 years since the plane crash, but it seems like yesterday. And I think about it every day.”
His memories become a little more vivid, the pain a bit sharper every October, as the anniversary of the crash approaches.
On October 20, 1977, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd boarded their private plane in Greenville, South (after performing at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium) and headed for Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Their next show was scheduled for Louisiana State University. They would never make it.
As they neared the latter part of the flight, the Convair CV-240 ran out of fuel. When the pilot and co-pilot realized they couldn’t make it to a nearby airport to refuel, they began looking at options for an emergency landing. As those on board began preparing for what that might mean, Pyle, who had served in the Marines as an Aviation Electronics Technician and had some pilot experience, moved into action.
“I went into survival mode,” he recalls. “I was going back and forth from the cockpit to the cabin, talking to the pilots, telling everybody to put out their cigarettes, turn off any lights, and conserve any power we had. I didn’t have time to think, oh my God, we’re having a plane crash, but I knew it was serious.”
Pyle’s story of what happened before, during, and after the crash is depicted in a film called “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash.” Released in 2020 during the pandemic, the movie, now available on Amazon Prime Video, shows his minute-by-minute account of the crash and the reactions of the people around him.
“In the movie, it shows some of the band freaking out because a couple of guys got really mad at our pilot and co-pilot for making the terrible mistakes that got us into this position. So, there was some anger, but for the most part everybody was calm, cool, and collected. Still, we were fretting. I mean everybody was going, ‘Oh shit, we’re going down.”
Pyle remembers everything, including his last interaction with Van Zant.
“Ronnie went to the back of the plane, and I remember thinking to myself, that’s a good idea. You’re going to the back of the plane where it’s probably a little safer. But then, he came back forward. He stopped at my seat, did the old hippie handshake, then gave me a beautiful smile. Ronnie had a great smile.”
Pyle chokes up and pauses, then through tears, continues. “And then he went forward. He had a pillow in his hand. And that’s the last time I saw Ronnie.”
The plane never made it to the field or highway, as the pilots had hoped. Pyle describes the aircraft quickly coming down out of the clouds, suddenly a hundred feet over treetops, in a swampy, heavily wooded area of Mississippi.
“We landed in Mississippi pine trees, three feet thick. It tore the plane completely apart in the 10 to 12 seconds it took to go from 200 miles to a dead stop.”
Much later, after Pyle was eventually transported to the hospital, Pyle would discover Van Zant didn’t make it. The doctor told him Van Zant’s body was intact, but he had died from a single blow to the head. Pyle believes he was probably struck by the heavy Sony Trinitron or beta machine they had on board that was loose and flying through the plane along with everything else – upon impact.
Guitarist Steve Gaines, and Gaines sister and back-up vocalist, Cassie Gaines were also killed, along with assistant road manager, Dean Kilpatrick. Pilot Walter McCreary and Co-pilot William Gray rounded out the six fatalities. Of the 26 people on board, miraculously, 20 survived, although many suffered severe injuries.
Right after the crash, Pyle, whose injuries included broken ribs, helped pull one victim out of the wreckage, then went for help. He headed for a farmhouse he spotted in the distance.
He would end up getting shot along the way.
“I know the farmer was only protecting his family,” Pyle says. “He came out of the house, and I looked like Charles Manson all covered in blood, with my long hair and beard. So, when he shot me…”
The farmer would later deny shooting Pyle. There was some discussion as to whether it might have been a ricochet shot.
“I don’t care what it was,” says Pyle. “He yelled stop, I saw the gun. I was stumbling because I had injuries and thought I was dying. Then, something tore through my arm, and I yelled, ‘Plane Crash!’ with what I thought was my last breath.”
The farmer then rushed to assist Pyle and get help back to the crash site.
Pyle says the “Street Survivors” film accurately depicts the events of October 20th, although due to budget constraints producers weren’t able able to secure the exact type of plane that crashed. Pyle, along with his sons, and his Artimus Pyle Band (created in 2010 to honor Lynyrd Skynyrd), wrote the music for the soundtrack.
He says after all of these years, he felt it was time to tell the story.
“I wanted Lynyrd Skynyrd fans to know what we went through that fateful day and night. And that my friends, Ronnie and the others, met their deaths very bravely.”
The 1977 crash changed the course of rock & roll history. Ronnie Van Zant, who wrote the band’s most famous songs – would write no more. The band itself, with three of its members gone, wouldn’t perform for the next 10 years, until Ronnie’s brother, Johnny, took on the role of lead singer.
And yet, all of those original Skynyrd songs are just as loved today, as they were all those years ago.
“It’s the power of Ronnie’s prolific writing,” notes Pyle. “People really identify with “Simple Man,” “Freebird,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps.” It’s a phenomena for these songs to be this powerful 45 years after that plane crash.”
Today, black granite walls mark the spot where the plane went down. The Lynyrd Skynyrd Monument has become one of the most heavily visited sites in Southwestern, Mississippi.
It’s become a place for fans of the band, fans of Southern Rock, and singers, songwriters, and musicians who want to honor the legacy of Ronnie Van Zant and the band he created, to gather and pay tribute.