Southern Airways Flight 242
The overhead view of the debris field of Southern Airways Flight 242
|Date||4 April 1977|
|Summary||Engine failure in severe weather|
|Site||New Hope, Paulding County, Georgia, United States
|Fatalities||72 (including 9 on ground)|
|Survivors||22 (originally 23, one died later)|
|Aircraft type||Douglas DC-9-31|
|Flight origin||Northwest Alabama Regional Airport, Muscle Shoals|
|Stopover||Huntsville-Madison County Jetport|
|Destination||Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport|
Southern Airways Flight 242 was a DC-9-31 jet, registered N1335U, that executed a forced landing on a highway in New Hope, Paulding County, Georgia, United States after suffering hail damage and losing thrust on both engines in a severe thunderstorm on April 4, 1977.
At the time of the accident, the Southern Airways aircraft was flying from Northwest Alabama Regional Airport to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Sixty-three people on the aircraft (including the flight crew) and nine people on the ground died; twenty passengers survived, as well as the two flight attendants. One of the initial survivors succumbed to his injuries several weeks later.
The flight crew consisted of Captain Bill McKenzie, aged 51, a highly experienced pilot with 19,380 flight hours under his belt; and Co-Pilot Lyman Keele, aged 32, who had 3,878 flight hours. The crew was advised of the presence of embedded thunderstorms and possible tornadoes along their general route prior to their departure from Huntsville, but they were not subsequently told that the cells had since formed a squall line. The flight crew had flown through that same area from Atlanta earlier in the day, encountering only mild turbulence and light rain.
The weather system had greatly intensified in the meantime. The peak convective activity was later shown on ground radar to be near Rome, Georgia, to which the flight was cleared to proceed by air traffic control. The crew attempted to pick out a path through the cells depicted on their onboard weather radar display, but they were apparently misled by the radar's attenuation effect and they proceeded toward what they believed was a low intensity area, when in fact it was the peak convective activity point, attenuated by rain.
As the aircraft descended from its cruise altitude of 17,000 feet (5,200 m) to 14,000 feet (4,300 m) near Rome VOR, it apparently entered a thunderstorm cell and encountered a massive amount of water and hail. The hail was intense enough to break the aircraft's windshield, and due to the ingestion of both water and hail, both engines were damaged and underwent flameout.
The crew attempted unsuccessfully to restart the engines, gliding down unpowered while simultaneously trying to find an emergency landing field within range. Air traffic control suggested Dobbins Air Force Base, about 20 miles (32 km) east, as a possible landing site, but it was beyond reach. Cartersville Airport, a general aviation airport about 15 miles (24 km) north with a much shorter runway intended for light aircraft was considered, but it was behind the aircraft and now out of reach. Before the aircraft turned toward Dobbins, the closest airport was another general aviation airport, Cornelius Moore Airport (now Polk County Airport – Cornelius Moore Field), but the air traffic controllers did not know about it (it was just outside their area of responsibility) and it was not considered.
As the aircraft ran out of altitude and options, gliding with a broken windshield and no engine power, the crew made visual contact with the ground and spotted a straight section of a rural highway below. They executed an unpowered forced landing on that road, but during the rollout the aircraft collided with a gas station/grocery store and other structures. The flight crew and 60 passengers were killed due to impact forces and fire, but 19 of the passengers survived, as well as both flight attendants. Eight people on the ground died. One passenger initially survived the crash but died on June 5, 1977. A seriously injured person on the ground died around one month later. The NTSB defined their injuries as serious, as at the time the Code of Federal Regulations defined a fatal injury as one that results in death within seven days of the accident. Among the fatally injured passengers was rhythm and blues singer Annette Snell.
NTSB investigation and final report
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the total and unique loss of thrust from both engines while the aircraft was penetrating an area of severe thunderstorms. The loss of thrust was caused by the ingestion of massive amounts of water and hail which in combination with thrust lever movement induced severe stalling in and major damage to the engine compressors.
The DC-9 was fragmented into several large pieces; the cockpit had separated mostly intact and came to rest upside-down. Both pilots had been ejected from it, still strapped in their seats, and had died of massive blunt-force injuries. The cockpit windows had separated and were mostly intact except for the two that had been struck by hail. There was no fire damage to the fuselage until behind the wings, which area had been subjected to an intense conflagration, but most of the passenger section up to the wings had been demolished by impact forces. Some passengers were killed on impact, others were ejected from the fuselage alive, but injured. A number of other passengers had succumbed to inhalation of smoke and fumes, including some individuals who were unable to escape to safety due to injuries. Flight Attendant Catherine Cooper survived unscathed mostly due to the luck of sitting in an area that provided her with relative protection from impact forces. She found herself hanging upside-down while still strapped into her seat, unbuckled the seatbelt, and jumped from an opening in the fuselage when the main cabin door turned out to be jammed and un-openable. Afterwards, Cooper ran to a nearby house to find help and discovered that some of the passengers were already there.
Meanwhile, Flight Attendant Sandy Ward was seated in the back of the plane and reported it "bouncing up and down" several times during impact, and that fire spread through the cabin. With a wall of flames blocking the way in front, she moved rearward and tried to open the back cabin door, but it was also jammed. By now, the fire had died down and she was able to exit through the broken fuselage. Ward tried to assist passengers in escaping until an explosion forced her to run for cover.
Per standard emergency procedure, the flight attendants removed their shoes and ordered passengers to do likewise. This policy was due to the possibility of high heels causing damage to evacuation slides. This resulted in a number of people sustaining lacerations and bruises to their feet that likely would not have happened otherwise, but since the attendants did not know the exact circumstances of the crash, they simply followed by-the-book emergency directions. The NTSB board believed that the pilots should have informed the flight attendants and crew to cushion themselves with blankets, coats, and pillows, and not remove their shoes.
The CVR data indicated at least two interruptions to power, one lasting 15 seconds, and the other almost two minutes following the complete loss of engine thrust until the crew switched to backup battery power.
The NTSB also included the following Contributing Factors:
Major contributing factors included the failure of the company's dispatching system to provide the flightcrew with up-to-date severe weather information pertaining to the aircraft's intended route of flight, the captain's reliance on airborne weather radar for penetration of thunderstorm areas, and limitations in the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system which precluded the timely dissemination of realtime hazardous weather information to the flightcrew.
Francis H. McAdams, one of the four NTSB members, dissented with the other members and filed the following Probable Cause in the same report:
the probable cause of this accident was the captain's decision to penetrate rather than avoid an area of severe weather, the failure to obtain all the available weather information despite having knowledge of the severity of the storm system, and the reliance upon airborne weather radar for penetration rather than avoidance of the storm system. The penetration resulted in a total loss of thrust from both engines due to the ingestion of massive amounts of water and hail which in combination with advanced throttle settings induced severe stalling in, and major damage to, the engine compressors, which prevented the crew from restarting the engines. Furthermore, if the company's dispatching system had provided the flightcrew with timely severe weather information pertaining to the aircraft's intended route of flight, it is possible that the severe weather would not have been penetrated.
Moreover, the crew had no training for a situation that involved total loss of engine thrust, nor did Southern Airways require such training. FAA regulations had no such requirement either because the possibility of complete failure of all engines on a jet-powered carrier aircraft was deemed so remote as to not require a mention anywhere, and in fact up until Flight 242, there was no known instance on record of it occurring.
The best chance for a (reasonably) safe landing would have been at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Georgia, but it is unclear why the crew did not attempt it due to the two-minute gap in CVR data mentioned above. Most likely however, poor visibility limited the choice of directions they could fly in.
McAdams also added the following Contributing Factor:
Contributing to the cause were the inadequacies of the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system which precluded the dissemination of real-time hazardous weather information to the flightcrew.
Flight attendants' commendation
The flight attendants on board were Catherine Lemoine Cooper as senior flight attendant, and Sandy Purl Ward, second flight attendant.
The NTSB noted in its report that despite the fact that the flight crew did not communicate with the cabin crew during the emergency sequence, the flight attendants nevertheless on their own initiative briefed and prepared the passengers for an emergency landing as the plane glided down. Just prior to touchdown, with no prior notice or cue from the flight crew that the plane was about to crash land, the flight attendants "saw trees" in the windows, and immediately yelled to the passengers a final "brace for impact!" command. The flight attendants also helped evacuate the passengers from the burning plane after the crash landing. The NTSB concluded that:
The flight attendants acted commendably for initiating a comprehensive emergency briefing of the passengers for their protection in preparation for a crash landing. This contributed to the number of survivors.
Purl wrote the book Am I Alive? about the experience and is a motivational speaker. In her book, she tells the story of the crash and the history of critical incident stress management's entry into the aviation industry.
The NTSB identified the accident site in its report as "Highway 92 Spur, bisecting New Hope, GA". They also include the geographical coordinates of Coordinates: . In addition, the NTSB report includes a depiction of the accident site, hand drawn as a circled 'X' on an aviation Sectional chart. Highway designations have been changed as of 2006. The road section used for the forced landing, formerly called Georgia State Route 92 Spur, is now called Dallas–Acworth Highway (Georgia State Route 381). The small Georgia community of New Hope, in Paulding County, where a memorial/reunion was held by survivors and family members 20 years after the accident in 1997, still appears on maps as of 2006. The site is 11 miles (18 km) from Cartersville Airport and 15.5 miles (25 km) from Dobbins AFB. Cornelius Moore Field, between Cedartown and Rockmart, was about 20.5 miles (33 km) behind them at the time of the crash.
The story of the disaster was featured in the 5th season of Canadian National Geographic Channel show Mayday (also known as Air Emergency or Air Crash Investigation in other parts of the world). The episode is entitled Southern Storm. It is also mentioned in the 7th season Flight 574: Lost, 8th season's Cruel Skies and in the 11th season's Nowhere to Land episodes. Smithsonian Channel USA featured the episode in their series Air Disasters. The Weather Channel featured the story of the plane crash in their series "Why Planes Crash", Episode 8, originally aired December 29, 2014.
Will Coley, whose father Gordon was a passenger killed in the crash, retells the story and interviews survivors and witnesses in his radio piece "Southern Flight 242: Bringing My Father Home." You can listen to this 28 minute show on the "Transom" podcast of Jan. 24, 2014.
- Garuda Indonesia Flight 421 – lost power in both engines shortly after entering a hail storm
- Southern Airways Flight 932 – the only other fatal Southern Airways accident
- West Caribbean Airways Flight 708 – another MD-80/DC-9 crash involving heavy weather and engine problems
- TACA Flight 110 – May 24, 1988 – 737 which lost thrust in a similar incident
- List of notable accidents and incidents on commercial aircraft
- Landsberg, Bruce (August 1998). "Deadly Surprise: Thunderstorms require a wide berth". AOPA Online. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
- Ayres, Jr., B. Drummond (April 6, 1977). "Hail in Engines Is Blamed in Georgia Crash Killing 68". The New York Times. p. 20.
- "Cockpit recorder played at hearing". The Tuscaloosa News. Associated Press. June 7, 1977. p. 14. Retrieved March 20, 2010.
- Wald, Matthew L. (1996-11-14). "Shoe Policy May Change In Airlines". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-04-23.
- Purl, Sandy; Lewis, Gregg A. (April 1986). Am I Alive?: A Surviving Flight Attendant's Struggle and Inspiring Triumph over Tragedy. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-062-50691-7.
- "History and maps of Highway 92/381". Peach State Roads: The Highways of Georgia. Retrieved March 20, 2010.
- Sack, Kevin (April 14, 1997). "Memories and Healing 2 Decades After Crash". The New York Times.
- "Seventy-two people died when Southern Airways Flight 242 crashed 20 years ago in the small community of New Hope". Associated Press. April 13, 1997.
- "Map of New Hope area (zoom to enlarge)". MapQuest.
- ASN accident record
- AOPA Air Safety Foundation narrative (including cockpit voice recorder transcripts)
- Pre-accident photo of accident aircraft N1335U on ASN
- Another photo of N1335U
- Will Coley's radio piece at Transom.org