Southern Airways Flight 242

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 Atlanta Municipal 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 died of his injuries several weeks later.

The flight crew consisted of Captain Bill McKenzie, age 51, a highly experienced pilot with 19,380 flight hours, and co-pilot Lyman Keele, age 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 using their on-board 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. The hail was intense enough to break the aircraft's windshield, and because of 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 buildings. 

The flight crew and 60 passengers were killed by 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.

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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 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. 

Lacking CVR data, the NTSB concluded that the pilots most likely turned away from Dobbins due to a combination of poor visibility and loss of electrical power, forcing the crew to turn the plane so they could maintain visual flight conditions.

The NTSB also included the following contributing factors:

The failure of the company's dispatching system to provide the flight crew 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 real-time hazardous weather information to the flight crew.

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 training or special procedures; the NTSB could not find a recorded instance prior to Flight 242 of a commercial jet aircraft experiencing such an emergency.[(While other significant incidents involving loss of all engines in flight have occurred, including the Gimli Glider and the Miracle on the Hudson, these happened after Flight 242's unpowered landing event in 1977.)

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 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 33°57'45?N 84°47'13? W Coordinates: 33°57'45?N 84°47'13?W. 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 and reunion was held by survivors and family members 20 years after the accident in 1997,[8][9] now hosts a memorial and reunion annually near the crash site.

 

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. Plans for a memorial to the honor the victims of the crash were unveiled in March 2015.

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