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Lynyrd Skynyrd crash survivor looks back

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Band's former manager offers new book Turn it Up!' free to veterans and military personnel

Oct. 20, 1977 is a date that Ron Eckerman has thought about nearly every day for the last 35 years.

Eckerman was tour manager for Lynyrd Skynyrd - at the time, one of the biggest bands in America. On that particular Thursday, the group and their entourage were flying from Greenville, South Carolina to their next concert, scheduled for Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

'I was in the back of the plane with the guys where we had a non-stop poker game going on,' Eckerman told me in a recent phone conversation. 'I remember getting really upset when one of the players ripped the table out of the cabin wall.'

According to Eckerman, shenanigans, even of the in-flight variety, were nothing out of the ordinary when working with Lynyrd Skynyrd. 'Our money and the poker chips went everywhere, so my main concern was, 'How am I going to straighten out this pot?' Minutes later, Eckerman forgot about the game when he realized that the band's plane was going down.

Eckerman recounts his years with Skynyrd years in the new book, 'Turn it Up! Love, Life and Death Southern Style.' As part of the band's inner circle, Eckerman feels compelled to set the record straight. 'There is a lot of misleading information out there,' he says. 'There's an important part of music history that was missing. It needed to be cleared up by someone who was there.'

Lynyrd Skynyrd's leader, vocalist and principal songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant, was Eckerman's closest friend in the band. 'Ronnie was a real southern gentleman a real good guy salt of the earth,' Eckerman told me. 'Most people don't realize that he had a good mind for business. Ronnie was very friendly and respectful to everybody that is, until he started drinking. He was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde' when he drank.'

In his book, Eckerman writes of the ups and downs of traveling with Lynyrd Skynyrd. 'It wasn't always crazy,' he told me. 'We had two days every week where there was no craziness at all. However, the other five days were insane,' he laughed. 'Skynyrd didn't do things maliciously, but sometimes their little pranks got out of hand.'

Prior to joining Skynyrd, Eckerman had managed tours and traveled with Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton, among many others.

Eckerman's voice becomes softer and his words slower as he recounts the final minutes of Lynyrd Skynyrd's flight of Oct. 20, 1977.

'Right before the plane went down, I thought we were OK. We could see an empty highway, a field and a forest. The co-pilot opened the cabin door about eight to 10 minutes before we crashed and said, Prepare for an emergency landing.' A few minutes later, they opened it again in a bit of a panic saying Prepare for a crash landing,' and that's when we knew we were in trouble.'

Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane, a Convair CV-300, crashed in a heavily wooded area, five miles northeast of Gillsburg, Mississippi. The pilot and co-pilot were killed, along with four passengers - Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backing singer, Cassie Gaines and band manager Dean Kilpatrick. There were 20 survivors, including Ron Eckerman. 'I was in a coma for a month and it took me about a year to fully recover,' he said.

The crash itself was completely avoidable, Eckerman explains. 'It wasn't a mechanical problem. The only thing wrong with that plane was that it ran out of fuel. According to our former pilot, that was a very safe plane. He told me that it could come down anywhere safely because it had such a good glide ratio. That's why I thought we were going to land on the freeway.'

In 1987, surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited. 'I was there when that happened, but I dropped out shortly afterward because I didn't like all of the politics and rubbish that was going on around them,' he says. 'They got back together for what was supposed to be one tour the Tribute' tour.' Then, they kept it going. When you look at what's happened, maybe they shouldn't have reunited.' Guitarist Gary Rossington is the only original member still with the band.

Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, has fronted the band for the last 25 years. 'I saw Johnny recently, and I talk to these guys at least a couple of times a year,' Eckerman said. 'They play that music better than anyone out there today, but for me personally, without Ronnie Van Zant it's not Lynyrd Skynyrd.'

'Turn it Up!' by Ron Eckerman, is available in several formats, including paperback, E-book and audio book on 12 CDs. Through Christmas, Eckerman is offering the digital version of his book free to veterans and military personnel through his website www.TurnItUpBook.com.

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' is heard daily on Big 104 airing on 104.3, 104.7 and 107.7. 'The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s and '80s.'

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