Book review: ‘Southern Storm’ chronicles aftermath of Southern Airways Flight 242

Dennis Anderson More Content Now
“Southern Storm: The Tragedy of Flight 242." [Smithsonian Books]

Professional pilots such as Rick Erwin study plane crashes to learn how to understand and avoid what may have led to the disaster.

One incident Erwin has become an expert on is the events that led to the crash of Southern Airways Flight 242 on April 4, 1977, in New Hope, Georgia.

Erwin’s father-in-law died in the crash, one of 72 victims (63 onboard and 9 on the ground) as the pilots tried to land their DC-9-31 on a highway after both engines were destroyed in a hailstorm. There were 22 survivors on the plane.

“Unfortunately, most regulations and improvements are written in blood,” Erwin, a veteran United Parcel Service pilot, tells Samme Chittum, author of “Southern Storm: The Tragedy of Flight 242,” (216 pages; $24.95; Smithsonian Books).

Chittum describes the harrowing day, from the developing storm and its fury, the pilots’ actions to try to restore the damaged plane, the heroics of the two flight attendants and the community that was forever changed by the disaster.

At the heart of “Southern Storm” are the stories of the people involved, including the survivors, the rescue workers and neighbors on the ground and the doctors at the hospitals who treated the victims, and family members of those on the flight who made their way to Georgia to be with their loved ones.

Co-pilot Lyman Keele Jr. was at the controls during and after the storm, when the plane’s engines failed. He was a decorated Vietnam Navy pilot who had made many takeoffs from and landings on aircraft carriers. It was his expertise that prepared him to land the disabled Southern Airways plane with a broken windshield directly on a narrow New Hope highway.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking is the story of the husbands whose wives, all related, were killed on the ground in an instant and the hours that passed before the men learned of their fate.

Chittum also tells of two survivors and their return from another world immediately following the crash. Their tales are chilling, but their stories end too soon with unanswered questions.

Yet the power of “Southern Storm” remains in Chittum’s reporting before, during and after this tragic event and the amazing stories and reunions that continue to present day.

— Peoria Journal Star Executive Editor Dennis Anderson can be reached at and on Twitter at @dennisedit.