By: Wayne Brown
“The Muscle Shoals passengers are back on board now, Bill” said First Officer and copilot, Lyman Keele.
Captain Bill McKenzie was in the command pilot left seat for this flight that had originated in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and was now making an interim stop for additional passengers at the regional airport in Huntsville, Alabama. The final destination for today’s flight was Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Good, then they can get the Huntsville passengers on and we can button her up and try to get moving before the weather settles into the area,” replied McKenzie as reviewed his printed weather briefing sheets. “Maybe we can put her into Atlanta on time” he added.
The McDonnell-Douglas DC-9-31 operating as “Southern Air 242” sat on the jet-way at Huntsville International Airport. Dark clouds were gathering in the surrounding area signaling the approach of stormy weather in the region. The flight briefing received by Capt. McKenzie forecast the potential for severe weather with embedded thunderstorms along the flight path from Huntsville to Atlanta. There was also potential for tornadoes. McKenzie and his flight crew had flown in this weather system earlier in the day on their circuit from Atlanta down to Muscle Shoals. Now, they were reversing the route and heading back to Atlanta. McKenzie surveyed the forecast and hoped that he could stay ahead of its development. Dispatch had not offered any updates to indicate delays or diversions. It looked as if they would be Atlanta-bound as soon as the aircraft was loaded.
“We’re ready to go back here, Captain” Flight attendant Sandy Purl announced as she quickly opened the flight deck door to signal the passengers were in their seats.
“Okay, Lyman, let’s get her pushed back and out to runway. Let’s go with the checklist,” McKenzie instructed.
Keele gave him a nod, made the necessary radio calls for clearance approval and signal the pushback to the ground crew. Southern Air 242 began to slowly back away from the jet-way as the pusher tractor guided it back along the taxi line and positioned it clear to taxi under its own power.
“Okay” McKenzie says to First Officer, “We’ve got them turnin’ and burnin’, let’s get the Taxi Checklist and roll for the runway.”
First Officer Keele coordinated the radio calls for clearance to taxi to the runway and McKenzie advanced the throttles to generate the engine thrust necessary to push the aircraft on its way.
“I just checked with dispatch again. Nothing new on the weather,” Keele said to McKenzie.
McKenzie nodded and began to discuss the various emergency actions the crew would take, and who would perform what, if there was any incident that occurred out of the ordinary on the takeoff. By the time he had covered the assigned duties, the aircraft had reached the taxiway leading to the active runway. McKenzie braked the aircraft to a stop and waited for the clearance to take the runway for takeoff.
“I will make the takeoff and get us through to level off, Lyman” Capt. McKenzie instructed, “The weather is Atlanta should be a little better so you can take the landing there.” He added.
The First Officer nodded his agreement and said, “Okay, Bill, I got the radios”.
“Southern Air 242, Huntsville Tower, you are cleared into takeoff position, runway 36, taxi into position and hold for departure clearance,” came the instructions from the airport tower controller.
“Roger, Huntsville, 242 into position and hold” Keele replied over the tower radio frequency.
McKenzie released the brakes and powered the aircraft forward into takeoff position facing north on the runway.
“Southern Air 242 is cleared for takeoff, climb on runway heading after takeoff to 5000’ ft, contact departure control on 133.30, current altimeter is 29.62” the tower controller radioed to the aircraft.
“Roger, Huntsville, 242 is rolling, runway heading to 5000, departure on 133.30 and 29.62, have a good day, Huntsville,” First Officer Keele transmitted back to the tower.
Bill McKenzie locked the altitude hold on the autopilot to 17,000 ft which was the cruising altitude for their flight clearance. The climb out had been a bumpy one with a lot of turbulence and clouds. Scanning the weather around them through the cockpit windows, McKenzie did not get the feeling that things were improving.
“Lyman, take a look at the radar,” McKenzie said point to the radar screen mounted in the aircraft console. We have a pretty good build up out there to the north. It’s pretty much all around us now. Looks like we are going to have to pick our way through it using the radar and any help we can get from air traffic control. If we can get on the other side of this stuff here, we should get into some better air before we get to Atlanta. Let’s look for a spot that will let us get through” He added.
The First Officer studied the radar screen trying to make an interpretation.
“Looks heavy, nothing’s going through that” McKenzie said pointing to visible weather outside the cockpit windows. “See that?” he added pointing toward the cloud formations. “That’s a hole isn’t it?” He queried pointing to the formation outside the window.
Lyman Keele looked at the radar image and said, “It’s not showing a hole, do you see it?”
Suddenly the aircraft skin was blasted with torrents of rain as the thunderheads began to spill their growing contents and spew it into the atmosphere.
“Do you want to go around this right now, Bill?” Keele asked pointing to the weather out front.
“Yes,” McKenzie replied, “Take it off autopilot and hand fly it around at about two hundred eighty five knots.”
“Okay, Two Eight-Five” Keele repeated taking control of the aircraft yoke with his hands.
The torrents of rain continued interspersed with the banging of hail on the aircraft skin.
McKenzie placed a radio call to Atlanta Air Traffic Control and stated, “Atlanta, Southern Air 242, we’re slowing it up here a little bit.”
“242, roger” AtlantaCenter quickly responded.
“Which way do we need to go…cross here or go out? I don’t know how we get through there, Bill” Lyman Keele said as he continued flying the aircraft.
“I know,” McKenzie replied, “You’re just gonna have to go out…” “Yeah, right across that band,” Keele replied pointing to the weather on the radar scope.
“All clear left approximately right now” McKenzie instructed, “I think we can cut across there now.”
“All right” Keele replied turning the aircraft, “Here we go.”
“We’re picking up some ice, Bill” Keele pointed to the windscreen noting the ice starting to build on the surface.
“Yeah, we are above 10 degrees?” McKenzie responded.
“Right at 10,” Keele replied.
“TWA 584, Atlanta Center, I show the weather up northwest of that position north of Rome, just on the edge of it. Maintain one five thousand.” AtlantaCenter instructed a nearby aircraft on the radio channel.
“Maintain one five thousand, we paint pretty good weather at our one or two o’clock, Atlanta” TWA 584 responded.
“He’s got to be coming through that hole about now” stated Keele pointing to the weather on the radar and marking the position of the other aircraft in it.
“Who’s that?” McKenzie asked looking at the radar.
“That’s TWA 584” replied Keele continuing to point at the weather on the radar scope.
“Southern Air 242, descend and maintain one four thousand at this time” AtlantaCenter instructed over the radio frequency.
“242, down to fourteen” replied McKenzie over the center radio frequency.
“Affirmative” came the reply from Center.
The heavy rain and hail continued to pelt the aircraft in the descent.
“Southern Air 242, Atlanta, altimeter two-niner-five-six, and cross 40 miles northwest of Atlanta at two-five-zero knots.” AtlantaCenter instructed.
Suddenly there was an electrical power loss in the cockpit; both pilots could hear the static of electrical systems shutting down in their headsets. The number one engine appeared to be losing power rapidly. Then the condition reversed itself and the engine had begun to regain power. As the engine gained RPM, electrical systems snapped back on line and the lights and radio were once again working. The rain and hail continued to beat against the metal skin of the aircraft as it tossed about in the turbulence of the clouds.
“We got it back, got it back, Bill” said Keele referring to the number one engine instruments.
“Southern Air 242, AtlantaCenter” crackled the radio.
“Uh, 242, Standby” McKenzie quickly replied.
“Say Again?” echoed the response from the Center controller.
“Stand by” McKenzie broadcast again in a firmer voice.
“Roger, 242, maintain one five thousand if you understand me; maintain one five thousand, Southern 242,” AtlantaCenter instructed.
“We’re trying to get it up there” McKenzie advised into his microphone.
“Roger” acknowledged Atlanta.
“Atlanta, 242, uh, we just got our windshield busted, and, uh, we’ll try to get it back up to fifteen, we’re at fourteen.” McKenzie transmitted.
“Fifteen Thousand,” First Officer Keele repeated aloud as he struggled with the aircraft controls and the engines to climb back to the assigned altitude.
“Southern Air 242, you say you are at fourteen now?” AtlantaCenter questioned.
“Yeah, uh, couldn’t help it” McKenzie replied.
“That’s okay, uh, are you squawking five-six-two-three on your transponder, 242?” Atlanta queried.
“Left engine won’t spool” McKenzie transmitted back on the Center frequency. “Our left engine just cut out,” he added.
“Southern 242, roger, and, uh, I lost your transponder, squawk five-six-two-three” Atlanta instructed indicating the radio code was not identifying the aircraft on the Center controller’s radar screen.
“Five-six-two-three, we’re squawking” Capt. McKenzie quickly replied confirming the setting.
“Say you lost an engine and, uh, busted a windshield, 242?” Atlanta questioned.
“Yes Sir” McKenzie replied into the radio.
“The autopilot is off” McKenzie said looking over at the First Officer to confirm.
“I’ve got it, I’ll hand fly it” replied Lyman Keele.
“Southern 242, you can descend and maintain one three thousand now, that will get you down a little lower,” Atlanta advised.
“The other engine’s going too” McKenzie replied to Center. “Got the other engine going too” He quickly added.
“Southern 242 say again” Atlanta requested
. “Stand By, we lost both engines” McKenzie quickly responded.
“All right, Bill” First Officer Keele said, “Get us a vector to a clear area.”
Capt. McKenzie keyed the microphone, “Atlanta, give us a vector to a clear area.”
“Continue your present southeastern bound heading, 242. TWA is off to your left about 14 miles at fourteen thousand and says he’s in the clear.”
“Okay,” McKenzie responded. “You want us to turn left?” He asked.
“Southern Air 242, contact approach control, one-two-six-point-niner, and they’ll try to get you straight into Dobbins Air Force Base,” Atlanta instructed.
“One-two…give me…I’m familiar with Dobbins; tell them to give me a vector to Dobbins if they’re clear” McKenzie replied.
“Ignition override” First Officer Keele said and the electrical power failed once again. Finally, almost a three minute lapse, McKenzie was able to restore power to the cockpit and regain use of the radio.
“There we go” McKenzie said noting the return of the electrical power;
“Get us a vector to Dobbins” Keele quickly reminded him as he continued to hand fly the aircraft.
“Atlanta, do you read Southern Air 242?” McKenzie spoke into the radio.
“Southern 242, Atlanta Approach Control, go ahead,” came the response.
“Approach, we’ve lost both engines; how about giving us a vector to the nearest place. We’re at seven thousand feet.” McKenzie broadcast.
“Southern Air 242, Roger, turn right heading one zero zero, will be vectors to Dobbins for a straight-in approach to Runway One One, altimeter two niner five two, your position is 15, correction, 20 miles west of Dobbins at this time” came the response from Atlanta Approach.
“What’s the Dobbins’ weather, Bill?” Lyman Keele quickly asked, “How far is it? How far is it?” He asked with desperation beginning to show a bit in his voice.
McKenzie ignored him and responded to the approach controller, “Okay, uh, one-forty heading and 20 miles.”
“Make the heading one-two-zero, Southern 242, right turn to one-two-zero,” responded Atlanta Approach.
“Okay, right turn to one-two-zero, and, uh, you got us our squawk, on emergency?” McKenzie shot back.
“Declare an emergency, Bill” Keele quickly instructed.
“Uh, I am not receiving your squawk, but I have radar contact 20 miles west of Dobbins.” Atlanta Approach broadcasted.
“Get those engines” shouted Keele as both pilots fought the chaos that was developing in the cockpit while the weather conditions continued to slam at the aircraft
“All right, listen” McKenzie broadcast to Approach Control, “We’ve lost both engines, and, uh, I can’t, uh, tell you the implications of this…we, uh, only got two engines and how far is Dobbins now?”
“Southern Air 242, Dobbins is 19 miles,” came the response from Atlanta Approach.
“Okay” McKenzie shot back, “We’re out of fifty-eight hundred, 200 knots.” “What’s our speed? Let’s see what’s our weight, Bill?
Get me a bug speed” Keele questioned indicating that he needed the Captain to compute a speed for the approach into Dobbins.
McKenzie went to work on the request while continuing to work the radio with Atlanta Approach.
“Southern Air 242, do you have one engine running now?” Approach asked.
“No” McKenzie stated, “Negative, no engines”
. “Roger” came the acknowledgement from the approach controller.
“One-two-six,” said McKenzie looking at the first officer, “Your approach speed is one-two-six. Just don’t stall this thing out!” He added.
Lyman Keele nodded his head in agreement, “I won’t” He said.
“Get you flaps” McKenzie instructed and the First Officer moved the lever into position. “Got it” He shot back as the indicator noted the new position of the wing flaps for the coming approach.
“So we got hydraulics?” Keele added noting that it required hydraulic pressure to move the flap assemblies.
“We got hydraulic pressure” responded McKenzie.
“What’s the Dobbins’ weather?” Keele asks as he continued to hand fly the aircraft.
“Atlanta, what’s your Dobbins weather?” McKenzie queried into the radio.
“Stand By” Approach responded.
“Can you get Dobbins on an approach plate?” Keele requested indicating that he wanted a printed approach diagram for the runway at Dobbins.
“Southern 242, Dobbins weather is two thousand scattered, estimated ceiling three thousand broken, seven thousand overcast, visibility seven miles” Atlanta Approach advised.
“I can’t find Dobbins, Atlanta, tell me where it’s at” McKenzie responded indicating that he could not get a visual of the ground for the cloud layers. “We’re down at forty-six hundred now,” He added indicating the aircraft was continuing to lose altitude as it descended through the weather.
“How far is it? How far is it to Dobbins,” Keele broadcast to approach as he continued flying the crippled craft.
“Roger, you’re approximately, uh, 17 miles wet of Dobbins at this time,” came the response from Atlanta Approach.
McKenzie quickly spoke into the radio, “Atlanta, I don’t know whether we can make it or not.”
“Ask them if there’s anything between here and Dobbins” Keele quickly interjected.
“Atlanta, is there any other airport between our position and Dobbins?” McKenzie transmitted.
“Southern Air 242, the closest airport is Dobbins,” came the response from Approach.
McKenzie shot back, “Something started, doubt we’re going to make it, but we’re trying everything to get started.” The Captain continued his efforts at trying to restart an engine on the aircraft.
“There’s Cartersville, 242, you’re approximately 10 miles south of Cartersville, 15 miles west of Dobbins,” Atlanta Approach advised.
“We’ll take a vector to that, we’ll go there” McKenzie quickly responded to the controller. “Can you give us a vector to Cartersville?” He added.
“All right, turn left to a heading of three-six-zero, direct vector to Cartersville” Atlanta Approach instructed.
“Three-six-zero, Roger,” McKenzie responded.
“What runway?” What’s the heading of the runway at Carterville?” Keele queried.
McKenzie quickly transmitted a request to Atlanta, “Atlanta What’s the runway heading for Cartersville, and how long is the runway?” He asked.
“Stand By” Atlanta advised.
“Like we are,” Captain McKenzie observed, “I am picking out a clear field to land in.”
“Bill, you gotta find me a highway” yelled Keele.
By this point, the aircraft has broken through the clouds that obscured the ground visibility.
“Over there, see a highway, with no cars” McKenzie pointed outside.
“Right there?” Keele asked pointing in the same direction as McKenzie.
“Is it straight?” Keele asked.
“No” Capt. McKenzie quickly noted.
“We’ll have to take it” Keele replied realizing there was little time to seek options.
Atlanta Approach responded, “242, at Cartersville, three-six-zero,” indicating the active runway heading. “The elevation is seven hundred fifty-six feet and, uh, it’s three thousand two hundred feet long.”
Southern Air 242 did not respond.
The landing gear horn bleated as the gear bumped into position.
McKenzie broadcast to Approach, “Uh, we’re putting it on the highway, we’re down to nothing.”
“Flaps” Keele called.
“Flaps are fifty” Capt. McKenzie responded. “Bill, I hope we can do it!"
"I am going to land right over that guy” Keele added indicating a car visible down on the road.
“There’s a car ahead” McKenzie advised.
“I’ve got it Bill, I’ve got it!” Keele yelled.
“Don’t stall it!” McKenzie cautioned.
“I gotta bug” said Keele indicating the airspeed was at the correct level on his indicator.
“We’re going to do it right here. I got it!” Keele said.
The First Officer, Lyman Keele’s words were the last recorded on the cockpit recorder. All the recorded information beyond that point document the sounds associated with the breakup of the aircraft. This tale is based on a true story of an airplane crash that occurred on 4 April 1977. Much of the information above is taken from the cockpit transcripts as the exchanges took place. I have added some fictional aspects to the conversation to fill out the story line for the reader.
The aircraft did manage to land on the highway. After touching down it impacted pine trees which lined both sides of the road. The left wing was torn from the aircraft and then the aircraft struck an embankment and began to breakup eventually plowing into a small service station and bursting into flames.
Sixty-three people died in this crash including pilots, William Wade McKenzie and Lyman Keele. An additional nine people died on the ground. Twenty passengers initially survived the crash although one died approximately one month later as a result of injuries received in the crash. Both flight attendants in the passenger section survived.
National Transportation Safety Board findings cited the primary contributing factors of the crash to be the airlines inadequate weather updates to the crew, the Captain’s reliance on airborne weather as a means to penetrate the weather system, and the limitations of the FFA’s radar systems in providing accurate weather information to aircraft in flight. The engines and tail section of the aircraft exhibited severe hail damage in the metal surfaces. The engines had been choked by the intake of rain and hail. The hail had severely damaged the turbine blades of the engine rendering them inoperable.
As a former Air Force flyer myself, I cannot stress to you the importance of respecting weather when it comes to flying. The airlines take a considerable beating with regard to long delays and passengers trapped on aircraft due to weather. While I empathize with this suffering, it does not approach the level of suffering and loss we will see if we pressure these businesses into pressing their luck with Mother Nature. Believe me, we will always lose that contest.