35th Anniversary of Southern 242

At about this time thirty-five years ago, the two-man crew of a DC-9 flown by Southern Airlines (which later became part of Northwest which is now Delta) was desperately trying to land their aircraft. Their engines were destroyed by ingesting massive amounts of large hail and heavy rain and their windshield was "busted."

In that era, thunderstorm-related plane crashes were common.

As the plane flew southeast toward Atlanta, a very fast-moving cluster of severe thunderstorms was in their path. Rather than trying to fly around them, the two-man crew decided to go through using their black and white weather radar (color radar had just been invented for television the year before and had not yet made it into cockpits).

To discern intensity, onboard radars in that era used "iso-echo contour" which meant the radar put a black hole in strongest storms and the hole was the strongest part. In this case, the crew mistook the hole for a thunderstorm-free area. Here is part of the transcript from the cockpit voice recorder:

4:03:48 Capt: "Looks heavy, nothing’s going through that."
4:03:54 Capt: "See that?"
4:03:56 FO: "That’s a hole , isn’t it?"
4:03:57 Capt: "It’s not showing a hole; see it?"
4:04:05 CAM: (Sound of rain)
4:04:08 FO: "Do you want to go around that right now?"
4:04:19 Capt: "Hand fly at about two eighty-five knots."


4:05:53 FO: "Which way do we go, cross here or go out—I don’t know how we get through there, Bill."
Capt: "I know you’re just gonna have to go out…."
FO: "Yeah, right across that band."
4:06:01 Capt: "All clear left approximately right now; I think we can cut across there now."
4:06:12 FO: "All right, here we go."

[the sound of heavy rain and hail is heard on the cockpit voice recorder, "squawking" is an electronic system to allow air traffic controllers to better see an aircraft using a four-letter code assigned by the controllers, it does not refer to complaining]

4:09:36 FO: "Left engine won’t spool."
4:09:37 S242: "Our left engine just cut out."
4:09:42 AC: "Southern Two-Forty-Two roger, and, uh, lost your transponder, squawk five-six-two-three."
4:09:43 FO: "I am squawking five-six-two-three, tell him I’m level fourteen."
4:09:49 S242: "Five-six-two-three, we’re squawking."
4:09:53 AC: "Say you lost an engine and, uh, busted a windshield?"
4:09:56 S242: "Yes sir."
4:09:59 Capt: "Autopilot’s off."
FO: "I’ve got it; I’ll hand-fly it."
4:10:00 AC: "Southern Two-Forty-Two, you can descend and maintain one three thousand now, that’ll get you down a little lower."
4:10:04 FO: "My (deleted), the other engine’s going, too (deleted)"
4:10:05 S242: "Got the other engine going, too."
4:10:08 AC: "Southern Two-Forty-Two, say again."
4:10:10 S242: "Stand by—we lost both engines."

With no engines, they attempted to land on a rural highway at New Hope, Georgia.

4:18:02 S242: "Uh, we’re putting it on the highway, we’re down to nothing."
4:18:07 FO: "Flaps."
Capt: "They’re at fifty."
FO: "Oh (deleted), Bill, I hope we can do it."
4:18:14 FO: "I’ve got it, I got it."
4:18:15 FO: "I’m going to land right over that guy."
4:18:20 Capt: "There’s a car ahead."

The landing path of Southern 242, click to enlarge
They were OK for a moment but a wing caught a tree and the aircraft broke up. Sixty-three died and twenty-two survived.

This crash showed many deficiencies in pilot training, onboard radar (which is now entirely color), and air traffic control.

  • The controllers were unaware there was an easily-reachable airport at Cartersville, GA because it was not marked on their radar scopes. Those secondary airports are now marked. 
  • The controllers had poor weather-awareness. That was fixed by assigning National Weather Service meteorologists to all of the FAA's air route traffic control centers. That program has not worked as well as I would have liked, but it was a step up.  
Southern 242 was a watershed for me because it was the first plane crash I ever investigated and I ended up corresponding with the National Transportation Safety Board over the radar issues. I would come to investigate many other weather-related crashes.

As a result of the work of the NTSB and meteorologists airline travel is far, far safer today when it was in the era of Southern 242.  I tell that story in my book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.


  1. Sadly today even with the more advanced color radar we have in our cockpits there is still a very large number of commercial airline pilots that do not properly know how to operate it correctly. This is mainly due to the fact that airlines really have no formal training on how to operate the radar (tilt, gain, etc) effectively.

  2. You are correct.

    Here in Wichita, we had an incident where an airliner landed with a funnel cloud over the south end of the airport!

    I fear the younger generation of pilots does not respect thunderstorms, wind shear and tornadoes as they should and are not getting start-of-the-art aviation meteorology training.

  3. "The controllers were unaware there was an easily-reachable airport at Cartersville, GA because it was not marked on their radar scopes".

    According to the NTSB accident report (pg. 6), Atlanta Approach gave them vectors to Cartersville after it became apparent that dobbins was out of reach:


    "Roger, well there is Cartersville, you're approximately 10 mi[les] south of Cartersville, 15 mi[les] west of Dobbins."


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