Severe hail cracked the windshield and destroyed the on-board radar of an Atlanta-to-Chicago AirTran jetliner Thursday night, but its Vietnam veteran pilot guided the plane to a landing at Chattanooga with the help of air traffic controllers.
Finding it difficult to see and with key instruments out, Capt. James Benton West managed to descend and land the DC-9 without further incident.
"I love my wife," West told WTVC-TV. "I'm going to see her again. I wasn't going to end like this. I've been shot down twice in Vietnam, so this--it wasn't going to end like this." West gave credit to the air traffic controllers at Chattanooga's Lovell Field.
There were 82 passengers and five flight attendants aboard the plane, AirTran spokeswoman Megan Catanese said. A passenger was injured slightly, apparently when a bag fell from an overhead storage bin, and a flight attendant also was injured, according to preliminary reports.
The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation. The plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were pulled from the plane and were being brought to Washington for analysis, safety board spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said.
Lopatkiewicz said investigators will want to know whether the plane's weather radar was operational and how the crew had set it. Under normal circumstances, a crew should be able to spot hail on the weather radar.
Pilots always have been advised to avoid severe weather by 20 to 30 miles or more. A Federal Aviation Administration advisory circular from 1983 warns that "hail always gives an echo [on radar]--giving the strongest of all echoes."
AirTran, which includes the airline once known as ValuJet, said the incident took place about 20 minutes after Flight 426 took off from Atlanta. Officials would not comment further.
According to FAA records, West has 15,000 hours of flight experience. The FAA has initiated no enforcement actions against him, but there are two incidents on his record, both in 1994.
On Jan. 28, 1994, West "lost directional control" of a DC-9 while rolling toward a takeoff from then-Washington National Airport and ran off the runway onto a grassy area. On July 5, 1994, he ran into heavy turbulence over Valdosta, Ga., and a flight attendant suffered multiple leg fractures.
Preston Hicks, a safety board investigator, inspected the plane Friday and said West and the copilot never were in danger when the windshield cracked because it remained intact and the cockpit did not lose pressure.