DECATUR, Ala. - Tuesday is the 40th anniversary of the crash of Southern Airways Flight 242. It was on its way to Atlanta on April 4, 1977 after picking up passengers in Muscle Shoals and Huntsville. The deadly crash is part of our past.
Looking back at WHNT News 19 coverage of the accident, we’re reminded of lives lost and the hell that some went through to survive. One of them was Decatur’s Don Foster.
A pilot himself, Don flew his company’s small plane a lot. But on April 4, 1977, he didn’t want to be behind the controls heading to a business trip in South Carolina. “There was a forecast for some severe weather and I always wanted to leave it up to the pros when there was severe weather,” he told us.
Technology back then, couldn’t reveal what was ahead in the sky. “The southern flight went right through a severe thunderstorm,” Don recalls. And it was bad. “It was the largest hail I'd ever seen. And it was probably the size of tennis balls,” Foster said. “And it was pouring into those engines.”
When both engines went out, the plane became a big glider. “We were at I think 17 thousand feet at that point,” Don recalls. The pilot told air traffic controllers in Atlanta, “Standby, we've lost both engines.” He only had one option. He radioed again saying, “We're putting it down on a highway. We're down to nothing."
He did the only thing he could. He tried to land the DC-9 on a two-lane road in New Hope, Georgia. “We were cutting the tops out of some pine trees,” Don said. The plane was also dragging phone and power lines. “The big problem came when we hit the gas station,” Foster recalls. The left wing of the plane sheared off two gasoline pumps causing an explosion, killing nine people on the ground.
“That’s when we really got into problems,” Don said. “And that’s what cost a lot of lives.” The explosion sent the plane skidding off the road and slamming into some trees. “The fuselage was cut in two behind and in front of me,” Don said. Sixty-three people died; 22 souls survived.
Don suffered burns on his head, hands and feet. He had a crushed vertebrae in his lower back, four broken ribs and he pulled a two-inch piece of aluminum out of his foot. While most would swear they’d never get on a plane again, one month later, “I was back on an airplane when I still had a cast on my leg,” Don said. “I thought this can't happen to the same person twice.” He knows he's blessed saying, “I just feel real lucky that I came out of it alive.”
Don Foster is now retired. He no longer gets behind the controls but he still flies and says he still believes it’s one of the safest modes of transportation. Not long after the crash of Flight 242, airlines started using color radar in their planes giving crews a better look at severe weather that’s ahead.