One couple embraced and other Southern Airways passengers held hands as stewardesses warned them to prepare for an emergency landing Monday afternoon while Capt. William W. McKenzie made a desperate attempt to fly his stricken jetliner safely to the ground.
But for a telephone pole in front of the New Hope, Ga., Amoco station, McKenzie might have succeeded, witnesses and investigators said yesterday. Instead, 60 of the 85 people on board the twin-engine McDonnell Douglas DC-9 were killed, along with eight New Hope townspeople. The plane's five-minute descent from 15,000 feet ended in disintegrating metal and flames.
There were 25 survivors.
McKenzie was forced to try a crash landing, he radioed air traffic control, because first one, then the other of his two engines quit in a vicious squall line that spilled tornadoes, rain and hail out of the Northwest Gerogia sky.
Federal crash investigators were concentrating yesterday on a theory that the DC-9's twin jets had been "drowned" either in sheet-like rain or ripped apart as they ingested golf-sized-size hail. The engines, both Pratt & Whitney JT8D jets, are standard equipment on two of the most common medium-range U.S. airlines - the DC-9 and the Boeing 727.
"If you can snuff one of those [engines] out," one federal expert said yesterday, "it opens up a real bag of snakes."
No one has ever heard of anything like it happening before. "This engine has been operating since 1964 on more than 8,000 airliners around the world," said Robert Zaiman of Pratt and Whitney. "We've never had an ice ingestion problem - to blame it on that is speculation. Here is was, flying at 15,000 feet, and something happened, we just don't know what."
The engines, he said, are tested for their ability to withstnad ice ingestion, and for their ability to be restarted in the air if, for some reason, they "flame out," or die. Capt. McKenzie and his copilot, Lyman W. Keele Jr., were apparently unsuccessful in any efforts to restart their enginers.
Passengers who survived the wild ride down reported that hailstones peppered the airline, that some passenger cabin windows were broken, that lightning stuck one wingtip.
Southern Flight 242 started in Huntsville, Ala., and was headed for Atlanta when it encountered the trouble. Air traffic controllers at the regional center in Atlanta first heard of the problem at 4:16 p.m., when one of the crew members radioed that "the windshield is busted." A minute later, the left engine was reported out.
John Tielking of Huntsville, a passenger, said a stewardess said passengers when the plane hit the storm, "Keep cool, it will be okay."
"I knew something was wrong," Tielking said. "I got up and went to the back of the plane and sat down."
Norfold Attorney Calvin Childress said, "We lost one engine and then a couple of seconds later we heard another engine go - pow, pow, pow," he said. A stewardess told everyone to prepare for an emergency landing.
Sally Furniss and her husband turned in their seats and kissed, Mrs. Furniss, 37, of Virginia Beach, told United Press International. Her husband did not survive the crash.
"All we could do was hold hands," said Frederick Clemens, 18, of Wilmington, Del. "I was sitting with my buddy next to me and a girl friend was next to him. We all held hands."
McKenzie first tried to get to Dobbins Air Force Base, the closest major runway. When he realized he couldn't do that, he received air traffic instructions for an airport at Cartersville, only a few miles away. That, too, was impossible to reach.
He would try, he told controllers, to "land on a road."
He got the landing gear down, probably using a auxiliary power unit that keeps hydraulic controls workable when the main engines are out. The flaps on the wings were set for a controlled landing.
Don Foster, a small-plane pilot who was a passenger on the Southern flight, said that after the engines went out the DC 9 "glided kind of straight, with a few turns. Then they [the crew] saw this paved road and they realized that was it. They were not going any farther, so they made a steep turn and tried to get it into the road. They just barely missed.
"I've been flying for years so I can appreciate their problem. I sure hope they got out after working so hard." Both Capt. McKenzie and copilot Keele died in the crash.
The wing hit the utility pole on Georgia highway Spur 92, in New Hope, and the plane began to break up. Witnesses in New Hope described it as sounding like a tarnado.
It cartwheeled down the street and through the gas pumps in front of Newman's Grocery. Seven of Mrs. Charles F. Newman's relatives - including four children - were killed as they sat in a car outside the grocery store.
Another person was killed when part of the plane crashed through two residences. There was one injury on the ground, according to police.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived on the scene early yesterday. The engines, they noted, were pock-marked, apparently by hail.
Rudolph Kapustin, the chief investigator, asked if anyone had saved and frozen the hailstones. The investigators wanted to look at them. He had received none last night.
It was Southern Airway's first accident on a regularly scheduled flight in 28 years of service, the airline said yesterday. However, it was a Southern charter that crashed and killed the Marshall University football team at Huntington, W. Va., in 1970.
The victims of Monday's accident included Gleen F. Bradley, 52, of Richmond, Va., a vice president of Reynolds International.
Sheriff Bob Shipp, standing in New Hope yesterday, pointed to the wreckage and talked about Capt. McKenzie. "He did a miraculous thing," Shipp said."He did all he could and lost his life doing it. He had his mind and thoughts with the people on that plane."