Episode 11: Southern Airways Flight 242

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Summary:

In this episode of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, Shelly shares the incredible story of Southern Airways Flight 242, which was ravaged inflight by a powerful storm. The pilots had to take desperate actions if they had any chance of saving lives; did they have enough time for a safe landing? This week's story is a life-changing adventure for the crew, the passengers, and even witnesses on the ground!



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Southern Airways Flight 242 Crash Lands on Highway After Losing Both Engines During Storm

In Episode 11 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the story of Southern Airways Flight 242, which crash landed on a highway in New Hope, GA, on April 4, 1977, after losing both engines during a powerful storm. The disaster uncovered startling insights into how aircraft engines function in a storm and brought about changes that ensure pilots have accurate radar and weather information for every flight. 

Southern Airways 242 Crash Lands on a Highway in New Hope, GA

It is April 4, 1977 in a small town in the southern United States called New Hope, Georgia. According to the town’s Wiki page, New Hope is an unincorporated community in Paulding County. At the time in 1977, New Hope was a sleepy rural town, located at the crossroads of the Dallas-Acworth Highway (which matters later on in this story) and East Paulding Drive/Old Cartersville Road. 

While the weather in New Hope on that day in April began as a lovely, warm spring day, there was a storm system moving through the Southeastern U.S. that was producing a record number of tornadoes. In fact, it is one of the strongest storm systems in the history of the south and created a tornado outbreak. And with these tornadoes came other severe weather, including torrential down pours and large hail. 

But, before the storm, that day starts out like any other day for resident and mother Sadie Hurst. It’s beautiful and the sun is shining. But then, her husband calls her that morning to say that some bad weather is on its way. He works in Atlanta and keeps the Huntington, AL radio station on, and they have reported fast-moving, severe storms coming toward New Hope. Remember, this is 1977 and well before the age of weather apps and advanced warnings. 

Even though it looks beautiful outside, Sadie calls her three boys into the house who are playing outside in the front yard. Fearing a tornado, she shuffles her children into the basement to wait out the impending storm. While sheltering in the basement, they hear what Sadie called “a tremendous noise”. Sadie goes upstairs to see what has happened, expecting to see the damage from a recent tornado. But, as she reaches the top of the stairs, the reflection in the glass door is glowing red. It is the red of flames. And when she walks into her living room, she sees a scene of horror playing out in her front yard. The broken remains of Southern Airways Flight 242, a DC-9, has crashed onto her front lawn and debris, burned bodies, and jet-fueled flames are scattered all around. She can hardly believe what she is seeing. But it is real. 

Southern Airways Flight 242 Prepares to Depart Huntsville for Atlanta

Earlier that day, Southern Airways Flight 242 is departing from Huntsville, AL for their destination to Atlanta, GA, for a quick, 25-minute flight. Many of the passengers onboard are military service personnel on their way to the many bases nearby. 

The flight crew consists of Captain Bill McKenzie, a highly experienced pilot who, according to the flight’s Wiki page, has over 19,000 flight hours, with more than 3,000 hours on the DC-9, and First Officer Lyman W. Keele, who is an experienced Navy pilot and has almost 4,000 flight hours, including 235 hours on the DC-9. First Officer Keele is the flying pilot on this leg of the flight. 

Southern Airways was known at the time as a "local service air carrier" and was founded by Frank Hulse in 1949 with headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama. By the late 1970s, Southern Airways began to experience difficulties. Two fatal accidents – including Flight 242 and another one, Flight 932 – blighted the airline's otherwise excellent safety record. In 1979, it merged with North Central Airlines to become Republic Airlines. And then Republic was acquired in 1986 by Northwest Airlines, and then as some of us may know, Northwest merged into Delta Air Lines in 2008. 

Before takeoff, the flight crew is given a printed report for the day’s weather ahead. It is already raining in Huntsville when they take off, and using the weather report, they know bad weather is coming, so the flight attendants plan to not serve anything on the flight in preparation for the anticipated turbulence. Some passengers recall they were surprised to be taking off in the weather, as bad as it was becoming. But, at 3:54 PM, Flight 242 takes off into a hard rain and the flight is cleared to ascend all the way to 17,000 feet. 

Southern Airways Flight 242 Encounters Heavy Storms After Takeoff

Shortly after takeoff, air traffic control (ATC) in Huntsville looks at the weather radar again and sees the storm gaining strength, which gives them concern. They radio Flight 242 and let them know that the latest weather report shows the flight is approaching a storm that will have moderate to heavy precipitation starting about 5 miles ahead of the plane’s current location. ATC confirms that the approaching storm is going to be stronger than what the pilots are currently flying through – and conditions right now include an immense amount of rain. 

The pilots look at their onboard radar and decide on a plan of action. First, they decide to slow their speed going through the storm so the impact on the plane would be less. And, second, they chart a path to navigate through the storm. Now, in 1977, planes had something called Bendix radar, and pilots were taught to interpret the radar data as follows: the bright parts of the radar indicate heavy precipitation and areas to avoid, while the dark areas indicate holes or passage ways through which a plane might be able to fly around or between storms. The pilots identify some dark spaces that they can use to navigate between storm clouds that are now over 8 miles tall, or to put that into perspective, 42,000 feet tall. A massive storm.

And no sooner had they charted a path forward and only 5 minutes after takeoff, did ATC again radio in and issue a SIGMET for all pilots flying in the area. A SIGMET means significant meteorological information and is a warning that dangerous weather is in the region. Generally, this means that pilots do not want to be within 50 miles of a SIGMET because the weather can be so strong that the plane may not be able to handle it or that the pilots may not be able to control the plane. 

And when the pilots look at their radar again, they can no longer see the hole that represented the way through the storm. It has seemed to have vanished. 

First Officer Keele says to Captain McKenzie, “I don’t know how we get through there, Bill.” And the Captain responds by identifying what he thinks is a path through which to cut the storm. Again, they are looking at their inflight radar. They agree there seems to be an opening in the left side of the storm through which they can try and navigate. Next, they descend with permission from ATC to 14,000 feet. 

Southern Airways 242 is Flying in the Middle of a Powerful Storm Cell

The storm suddenly seems to get worse. To passengers in the cabin, they hear the deafening sound of hail hitting the outside of the plane. One passenger said it sounded like he was inside of a metal barrel and someone was throwing rocks at it. 

And then, a loud crash can be heard inside the cockpit. It is the sound of hail the size of baseballs crashing into the windshield. The impact is so forceful against the glass, that the windshield begins breaking. The sound inside the cockpit is so intense, the pilots must elevate their voices just to hear one another clearly. 

Then if things couldn’t get any worse, the plane loses all electrical power and begins to descend. Unbeknownst to the pilots, lightning has struck the left wingtip, and the cabin is now in total darkness except for the flashes of lightning through the passenger windows. Without power and no instrument panel, First Officer Keele must keep the plane level without an artificial horizon. They must use the natural horizon, but it is nearly impossible to see with all the thick storm clouds surrounding them. ATC tries to contact Flight 242 but gets no response since the plane is now without power. 

Flight attendant Cathy Lemoine-Cooper knows they are in imminent danger. She begins to brief her team and the passengers on emergency landing instructions. Passenger Frederick Clemens said this happened quickly and very efficiently. 

Thankfully, after 36 seconds without power, it comes back on. The pilots are now able to use their instruments and radio. ATC finally gets through to the plane and tells them to maintain 15,000 feet. First Officer Keele replies, “We’re trying to get it up there.” The plane, without power, has fallen to just around 13,800 feet. 

To make matters worse, the hail increases in intensity. Passenger Don Foster, who is also a commercially licensed pilot, looks outside his window to see large hail battering the engines. He can hear the sounds the engine is making – and it sounds to him like it is failing. And soon, the left engine, overwhelmed by rain and hail, flames out. When the engines quit, all the key systems, like hydraulics, stop working too. 

Southern Airways Flight 242 Experiences Engine Failure in Midflight

The pilots know now they are facing engine failure and tell ATC that their left engine cut out and their windshield is busted. And ATC cannot believe what they have just heard and ask the pilots to repeat themselves. 

The worst-case scenario unfolds. Not only has their left engine stopped, but not the right engine then flames out. The pilots confirm to ATC that BOTH engines are out. And everyone knows the situation is extremely dire: this DC-9 is now a giant glider, falling 56 feet per second. If they do nothing, they only have 9 minutes before they crash to the ground. The pilots try starting the auxiliary power unit (APU), which is the reserve power system, but it will take 2 minutes for that to start. 

Meanwhile, sensing the plane is going to crash land, Don Foster (passenger and commercially licensed pilot) focuses on how to save himself. He gathers extra pillows and blankets from the overhead bins and creates a cushion around him. He does this because he knew that in some air accidents, the tail section breaks off – and that is where he is sitting. He feels the further back he could get, the safer he might be. Frederick Clemens holds hands with his fellow military men, and they all try to say positive words like, we are going to make it. 

The APU finally kicks in and the pilots get back many of the critical systems needed to fly the plane, but of course, both engines are still out. They contact ATC and ask for directions to the nearest airport. They can only stay airborne for about another 6 minutes. ATC directs them to Dobbins Airforce Base. The good news is that First Officer Keele is a reservist at Dobbins and has flown into the base many times – it is really their only advantage that First Officer Keele knows the airport so well. He tells Captain McKenzie to declare an emergency. 

Southern Airways 242 Prepares for a Crash Landing

Finally, Flight 242 breaks out of the storm clouds into clear skies. But the plane is still steadily descending. Captain McKenzie is busy running checklists and trying to troubleshoot while First Officer Keele radios ATC to update them on the situation. Flight attendant Cathy Lemoine-Cooper opens the cockpit door just to tell the pilots that they are ready for whatever happens next, and she sees the cracked windshield and gasps. She asks them what is going on, but they hurriedly tell her to leave the cockpit. Cathy can tell they are afraid, and that makes her realize something very dangerous is going on even though she does not know what exactly. 

The plane is now less than one mile off the ground and 16 miles from Dobbins. First Officer Keele knows they are not going to make it to Dobbins. He asks Captain McKenzie to radio ATC and see if there are any other airports between their current position and Dobbins. But ATC confirms that is the only airport in their path. McKenzie tells ATC they will not make it to the airport. Then ATC looks at a map and tells them there is an airport in Cartersville, which is right near New Hope, GA. They ask for permission and guidance to that airport as there seem to be no other options.

The flight attendants still do not know exactly what landing they are preparing for, but they go about preparing for a crash landing. Don Foster hunkers down into his self-made fortress of pillows and blankets and puts his leather jacket over his head – hoping that if things catch fire, the jacket will act as a shield to the flames. 

And very quickly after they get a vector to land at Cartersville, the pilots come to understand that with their current rate of descent and their current altitude, they will not make it there either. They have no choice but to land immediately. 

Captain McKenzie wants to land in an open field, but First Officer Keele wants to land on a highway. So, they spot the Dallas-Acworth Highway and decide to land there. The pilots radio into ATC, “We’re putting it on the highway. We’re down to nothing.”

First Officer Keele lines up the plane with the highway by making a steep left bank. Passengers can see the tops of pine trees as they make that sharp turn. Flight attendants yell out for all passengers to get into the brace position.

According to the Mayday Air Emergency episode, Flight 242 touches down on the highway. At first, to those in the cabin, this feels like a normal landing. But then the airplane immediately bounces into the air and then slams back down to the ground. And this happens over and over, each landing getting harder than the previous one. 

The plane finally smashes into the town of New Hope, partially exploding on impact. Seven members of one family are killed on the ground when the plane strikes their Toyota compact, which is parked in front of Newman’s Grocery. The plane then cartwheels onto Sadie Hurst’s front yard, where it breaks into five sections. One of two additional townspeople killed on the ground in the crash is an elderly neighbor of Sadie’s, Berlie Mae Bell Craton, 71, who died when a tire from the DC-9 flew through the air and struck her on the head as she stood in her front yard.

Survivors Emerge from Plane Crash onto Front Lawn

Miraculously, despite the violent impact, there are survivors. 

Passenger Don Foster sees a spot of light at the back of the plane, and once he gets his seat belt off, he goes through the hole in the fuselage and into the sunshine of the day. He cannot believe he is alive.

Flight attendant Cathy Lemoine-Cooper finds herself almost upside down in her jump seat, since the walls that held it have collapsed around her. She, too, sees an opening in the fuselage and goes out into the light of day. Flight Attendant Sandy Pearl also escapes safely. 

Frederick Clemens is suddenly looking at blue sky. He is flat on his back in the dirt. He has been ejected from the plane, which is now broken and on fire all round him. 

The tail has split open on impact, scattering passengers, luggage, and seats over the ground. The nose cone has broken off and landed upside down in Sadie Hurst’s side yard. Captain McKenzie has been killed upon impact; First Officer Keele dies while being airlifted to a regional medical center. In all, sixty-three people on the aircraft (including both pilots) died; 20 passengers survived, as well as the two flight attendants.

Sadie Hurst sees the disaster up close. Smoke, fire from the plane parts and the trees, and people were running toward her house, screaming, and crying, pleading for help. Flight attendant Cathy Lemoine-Cooper asks to use Sadie’s telephone to phone corporate and let them know where they crash landed. 

Sadie sees survivors who just kept coming and coming. She tries to do everything she can to make them feel safe, and even intended to get them water, but when she tries her faucet, nothing comes out. The explosion has severed her water line. She now feels helpless. 

First Responders Recount Flight 242’s Horrific Crash Scene 

An article by Clifford B. Davids on the Asheville Oral History Project website provides a sense of the eyewitness accounts on the ground as well as the local first response to this tragedy, and it is nothing short of heroic. 

Davids writes:

 “…the first responders were already gearing up for a fiery rescue in the moments before the co-pilot of Southern Airways Flight 242 lowered his landing gear and touched down dead center on a narrow strip of highway in New Hope, GA. 

Bobby Bruce, an employee of the city of Dallas, GA, had been quietly working atop Cemetery Hill when he saw the crippled jetliner plunge to earth. He immediately sends an emergency alert from the city radio in his truck to the dispatcher at the nearby Dallas Police Department. The Dallas Police Department contacts the Dallas Fire Department, alerting Assistant Fire Chief Elsberry at the Standard Oil gas station where he worked. The nearby Union City Fire Department is also notified.

Principal M.A. Hornsby of the New Hope Elementary School is in the school parking lot when he sees the crippled aircraft making a forced landing. He rushes back to his office to call the authorities, but the telephone poles are destroyed by the crash. So, he runs back outside and flags down a car with a citizen’s band radio, asking the driver to call in the accident on the emergency frequency.

New Hope Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Clayton witnesses the crash while standing in his front yard, located just up the street from the fire department building and directly across the road from where the plane came to a jarring halt. He takes charge and directs the initial firefighting, evacuation, and treatment of the injured. His assistant chief, Johnnie Wigley, suffers burns on his back and both arms as he heroically runs into the flaming aircraft to evacuate more survivors. The New Hope volunteers, who have just installed a new water hose on their pumper, are the first on the scene. They extinguish the crash fires within 30 minutes and are later honored by the governor for their heroism.

Dr. Jerry Worthy, the FAA Medical Examiner who happens to be in the area at the time, arrives at the scene and takes charge of the triage efforts. He uses a vacant warehouse in Dallas as a makeshift morgue, putting a clerk from the local hospital in charge. 

At least 48 ambulances respond from sixteen separate locations, including three hospitals and the nearby Dobbins AFB. Survivors are sent to five separate hospitals by ambulance, school bus, and helicopter.

City of Dallas Police Chief Louie F. Schneider arrives on the scene within minutes of the crash. He immediately organizes three groups of men to search for any survivors in the woods beyond the crash site, and they quickly find multiple victims who have been ejected from the plane as it broke apart.”

NTSB Opens Investigation into Southern Airways Flight 242 Crash

Within hours of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrives on the scene and begins to investigate. The goal of the investigation is to determine how the weather impacted the circumstances of the flight, why the engines failed, and why the pilots landed where they did.

First, the pilots relied heavily on their radar to navigate the storm system. But the Bendix radar system has limitations, including what they call signal attenuation, meaning the picture of the storm on radar that the crew is looking at may not be accurate. If precipitation is too intense, the radio signals get blocked and the radar interprets the lack of signal as a clear path ahead through the storm. So, the black spots they saw were NOT in fact clear spots in the storm. Instead, they were the heaviest part of the storm and flew straight into it. This is issue number one, that they did not have good weather data. 

So, the question to explore next was: why were the pilots not warned about the storm coming their way? When the pilots were leaving Huntsville, they did have a weather report, but the info was already hours old. This was because Southern Airways dispatch did not subscribe to the National Weather Service’s update system. They did have a subscription service, but it required them to dial up to receive the updated weather information. When the dispatcher called it that day on April 4th, it was busy, and Dispatch never called back. As a result, an updated report never got to the pilots. And, they did not ask for one. Apparently, the Dispatch in Huntsville were only responsible for relaying weather information that impacted the nearest 40 nautical miles and the plane was going was well beyond that 40 nautical mile limit. Because of that, they flew blindly into a massive thunderstorm. 

Engines on Flight 242 Failed Due to Ingesting Massive Amounts of Water, Surges

Once inside the storm, both engines failed. Investigators felt that the engines should have been able to withstand a great deal of precipitation, so they test flight 242’s badly damaged engines. After many tests, according to the Mayday Air Emergency episode and the plane’s wiki page, the NTSB finds that the loss of engine thrust was caused by the ingestion of massive amounts of water, and more specifically, hail, which in combination with thrust lever movement on the part of the pilots, caused a repetitive surge in the engines, and that in turn induced severe stalling in and major damage to the engine compressors. Pilots should have pulled the throttle back to clear the surge in the engines, but they did the opposite because they were trying to climb while they were in the storm to 15,000 feet per ATC instructions. In order to climb, the pilot had to increase thrust to the engine, and if the surge was not cleared, then that would create pressure in the engines, bending the compressor blades until they shattered. And that renders the engines inoperable. 

NTSB Explores Why Southern Airways Pilots Chose to Land on Highway

Lastly, the final question to explore was, why did they land where they did? The crew first asked to get a vector to Dobbins Airport. And this is when one more deadly oversight happens. The pilots turned west to get away from the storm, and it did get them out of the storm, but it also turned them further away from Dobbins. And given they had very little time to begin with between the time the engines failed and when they would need to have landed, this turn ate up precious time they did not have. Had they stayed the course toward Dobbins and not made the turn, they would have had a better chance at landing safely. By the time the pilots received the instructions from ATC, there was not enough time left to land there. 

And if that is not enough, there was one last missed opportunity. When the pilots were talking to ATC, no one realized they were right above a different airport: Cornelius Moore Airport. Investigators learn that the airport was just out of range from Atlanta ATC, so ATC did not see the airport on their screens. 

When Don Foster learned that the controllers in Atlanta did not know about the Cornelius Moore airport, he was angry. That runway was 4,000 feet long, he said, and “while it may have been shorter than preferred, it sure would have been better than that highway we landed on.” 

NTSB Recommends Improvements Following Southern Airways Flight 242 Crash Landing

As a result of this disaster, the NTSB made recommendations that all commercial airplanes should have real-time weather information. In fact, pilots of today, thanks in part to this disaster, have color weather radar so they can see exactly the kind of precipitation around them. 

The crash also leads to a better understanding of how engines function in a storm. And the role that surge plays in stalling out an engine, especially given heavy precipitation. 

NTSB findings also reveal, after they examined what Don Foster did when he put pillows in between himself and the seat in front of him that had every passenger on the plane had a blanket and a pillow, the crash would have caused fewer causalities. 

Annually, New Hope Community Remembers Southern Airways Flight 242

Every year since the crash, the town of New Hope, GA, has hosted a memorial gathering of survivors to commemorate the disaster. 

The plane “jumped over” Fire Station 3, Volunteer Fire Chief Larry McIntyre said, sparing it but leaving a lasting mark on public safety. He said, “The photos of Flight 242 hung on our walls for the last 30 years. When we built that new station, we dedicated it to Flight 242.”

It is during these memorials that first responders and survivors can bond over their mutual experiences that day, which have bonded them for life. The town of New Hope, as well as the surviving passengers and crew of Flight 242, will never, ever forget. 

And THAT is the story of Southern Airways Flight 242.

Show Notes:

Stephanie and Shelly discussed the current trend involving restaurants that fill empty tables with placeholders, including The Inn at Little Washington (who use mannequins) and a restaurant in Japan (who use stuffed capybaras). Stephanie was especially excited about the capybaras; if you haven't seen the world's largest rodent, we recommend you take a look!

Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered by: Crosse deStreit, Salmon Pond Studios
Producer: Adam Hubka
Sound editing and music by: Mike Dunn
Southern Airways Flight 242

Destruction on the highway where the plane landed. Photo Credit: Clifford B. Davids

Southern Airways Flight 242

Parts of the tail section and right wing. Image Source: Wikipedia

Southern Airways Flight 242

Southern Airways Flight 242 broken tail section. Photo Credit: Clifford B. Davids

Southern Airways Flight 242

Photo of the aircraft involved in the accident. Image Source: Wikipedia