Southern Storm: The Tragedy of Flight 242, Smithsonian Air Disasters #2

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1. What types of research and interviews went into
uncovering the true story behind Flight 242?
I invested more than 120 hours interviewing survivors and
people with valuable insights into the crash and its
aftermath. One of the most compelling aspects of the
research for this book was the trip I took to attend the 40th
anniversary reunion of survivors and relatives of victims in
New Hope, Georgia. This included a moving memorial
service at the same church where funeral services were held
for seven of the nine New Hope crash victims—three young
mothers and their four children—and a visit to the crash
site. Profound connections were made at this and other
reunions. I spent time with New Hope resident Richard
Carter, whose extended family was devastated by the crash,
and visited the cemetery where his wife and infant son are
buried. I was able to see first hand how the people of New
Hope and survivors of the crash came together to promote
healing in the wake of a disaster that took so many lives.
2. How do you think this crash changed New Hope, Georgia?
New Hope was always a close-knit community of families who looked out for their “kin” and
neighbors. The pain and trauma of the crash could have made them shut their doors and hearts
to outsiders. Instead, the people of New Hope chose to reach out to strangers whose lives, like
theirs, were violently interrupted and altered by tragedy. Instead of dwelling on their own loss,
they gave their all to the hard work of recovery and healing.
3. Why do you think this story is important?
Southern Storm is a story of heroism, heartbreak and healing that is truly remarkable and
worthy sharing. Southern Storm provides an in-depth account of what happened to the plane
as well as the heroism of the pilots, Captain Bill McKenzie and Lyman Keele, Jr., who kept their
heads throughout the entire crisis. It also sheds light on the central mystery of the crash—what
happened during a two-minute communication blackout when the pilots were on their own.
And sets the record straight by spelling out how the system failed the pilots. Their employer
failed to provide them with the latest weather report that would have warned them about the
lethal hail storm in their path. And the air traffic control system utterly failed them by providing
inadequate support at every stage of the escalating emergency.

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4. How does Southern Storm: The Tragedy of Flight 242 fit in with the earlier Air Disasters
book, The Flight 981 Air Disaster?
These are very different accidents with different causes and outcomes. However, both incidents opened
my eyes to the bravery of flight attendants in general and women flight attendants in particular. The
performance of flight attendants in emergencies is often overlooked. While pilots are dealing with the
plane, the flight attendants are focused on the passengers and keeping order in the cabin and preparing
for a crash landing under truly terrifying conditions.
The two women flight attendants who survived the Flight 242 crash, Cathy Lemoine Cooper and Sandy
Purl Ward, exhibited extraordinary courage and professionalism after their plane was battered by hail
and lost both engines. Without being briefed by the pilots they realized the plane had lost both engines
and immediately began preparing the passengers for an emergency landing. The two surviving flight
attendants came to the aid of injured passengers before emergency aid workers arrived on the scene.
The same can be said of the flight attendants on American Airlines Flight 96, the first DC-10 that suffered
a cargo door blow out prior to Turkish Airlines Fight 981. Two of those flight attendants almost lost their
lives when the floor of the plane collapsed where they were standing.
5. What has inspired you to write about air disasters?
As a former crime reporter with a Ph.D. in English and historical fiction, I gravitate toward
stories with history, mystery and human interest. Air disasters typically have all three of these
elements. They also involve complex investigations and a treasure trove of evidence to be
examined and analyzed. I typically immerse myself in the body of evidence, then step back and
see if the conclusions reached by the investigators match up with the facts.
6. How do you think this story fits into the larger story of commercial aviation today?
Then as now, pilots are sometimes confronted with crises that are so unusual that no
emergency plan exists for how to respond. In this case, it was the loss of both engines that
turned the Southern Airways DC-9 in to a glider that the pilot flying, Lyman Keele, Jr. still
managed to fly for more than 30 miles before putting the plane down on a rural highway in
northern Georgia. It was a near perfect touch down, but the plane’s wings collided with
obstacles on the roadside, making it impossible to control the ground. No matter how many
safe guards and improvements are made, there will always be a need for the human element:
the incredible courage, nerve and adaptability of the pilots and flight attendants caught up in
an unprecedented crisis that calls on them to stay calm and improvise to save their plane and
the lives of everyone on board.