A Delta Air Lines jumbo jetliner with 161 people aboard crashed and burned in a violent thunderstorm tonight at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, killing at least 122 people, a Delta official said.

There were 27 survivors, including three crew members, according to Matt Guilfoyle, a Delta spokesman here. The rest were unaccounted for.

Witnesses said the Lockheed L1011 appeared to have bounced on a highway several hundred feet from the runway, hit several cars and crumpled a large water tank as it took a nose dive on its landing approach.

At least one motorist was also believed to have been killed.

Several witnesses said the plane had been struck by lightning and was on fire before it crashed; others said it appeared to have been brought down by a wind shear. "We are reasonably certain it was weather-related," said Guilfoyle.

"It seemed like we were being forced to the ground much faster than what the pilot wanted," said Jay Slusher of Phoenix, who was sitting in the tail section of the aircraft and survived with minor injuries.

"He kept increasing the engine speed trying to pull out," he said on ABC's "Nightline."

The crash was the first in the 11-year history of the airport, the nation's fourth busiest field, and the first involving a Delta plane since July 1973.

Dense smoke streamed from the charred fuselage of the jet and debris was scattered over several hundred yards.

A large piece of the plane's tail section remained intact.

Military helicopters scanned the area near the crash site tonight, looking for additional survivors.

The crash occurred at 6:05 p.m. CDT. The airline said there were 149 passengers and 12 crew members aboard Delta Flight 191, bound from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Los Angeles with an intermediate stop at Dallas.

The plane crashed 300 to 500 feet short of Runway 17R in the northeast section of the airport.

A National Weather Service meteorologist, Bryan Harmon, said a thunderstorm cell with downward air currents of possibly 80 mph passed just north of the airport about the time of the crash.

"From what I could see of the observation data, it had downdrafts of 80 mph," he said.

A witness said a motorist was decapitated when the plane struck his car on State Highway 114.

"The plane was coming in real low. I saw the nose hit a car on the highway," Robert Braden, who was on the 10th floor of a nearby airport hotel, told the Associated Press.

He said the plane bounced over a field, clipped one or two water tanks, and skidded across a tarmac to a muddy, grassy field.

"It went into a ball of flame. The back end caught on fire and skidded across the ground," he said.

Jerry Maximoff, an employe at Zantop International Airlines Inc., who was working about 200 yards from the crash, said he talked to a survivor.

"He said he was sitting in the tail, smoking a cigarette. It felt like the crew was maneuvering the plane left to right, then the next thing he knew he felt a bump, then all of a sudden he was upside down in his seat," he quoted the survivor as saying.

"He unlatched his belt and dropped down and ran out on the field," Maximoff said.

"It looked like he only had a scratch on his back."

Thomas Dunn, another witness, told United Press International that he saw some victims at the scene strapped in their seats, bodies totally burned.

"I saw bodies that were charred and bodies on the ground that were absolutely normal," Dunn said. "The whole plane was on fire before it hit the ground. It was just a big ball of fire."

Another witness, Anthony Rogers, told reporters in Dallas that the plane struck several cars on a nearby road and decapitated the driver of one.

"The rain was so hard you couldn't see 30 feet in front of you," he said. "All of a sudden, a tire and a big jolt bounced my car. I got out, saw another car had been hit, and the guy was 30 feet from his vehicle and had been decapitated."

Another witness, Tony Maza, said, "I heard the low-flying jet. I did see lightning. All I could feel was a heavy gust of wind coming in behind the plane and the plane itself in sight, exploding."

Jerry Fenske, a worker for Zantop, said, "When I went out there, all I saw was a big flash of fire. I also saw water spewing out of the tank."

Television broadcasts from the scene showed that the water tank had been dented by the jet.

Firefighters spread foam in the crash area and a stream of ambulances and two emergency helicopters were seen leaving for Parkland Memorial Hospital. The hospital had 50 doctors and 50 nurses in a special triage operation that a spokesman said was the biggest in its history. He said the hospital was swamped with people offering to donate blood.

Seventeen injured people, including a 1-year-old infant who died, were brought to Parkland, the spokesman said. Among the injured were a 60-year-old man with burns and a 16-year-old with cuts and bruises. Passengers also were taken to five other area hospitals.

Delta spokesman Jim Ewing in Atlanta said the airline had a tentative list of passengers but would not immediately release names. The pilot, copilot and flight engineer were based in Atlanta, and the cabin crew was based in Miami, he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team, headed by board member G.H. Patrick Bursley, to the scene aboard a Federal Aviation Administration plane.

The flight and cockpit recorders, which record data about airplane performance and are designed to survive crashes, were recovered, a spokesman for the safety board said tonight.

The L1011 is a three-engine, wide-body jet built by Lockheed. Delta operated 38 of the jets at the end of last year.

The plane crashed at the northeast corner of the large Dallas-Fort Worth airport as it was making an approach from the north during the thunderstorm.

It was preparing to land on one of the two parallel runways that serve the airport.

Police at nearby Irving said debris falling from the plane caused several accidents along Highway 114 near the crash site.

The highway is the principal northern approach road to the airport.