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Jet Carries 87 to Safety After Hail Blinds Cockpit

May 09, 1998| From Associated Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Hail cracked a DC-9's cockpit window and ripped off its nose cone, hampering the pilot's vision and making it impossible for him to tell his altitude or speed as the jet plunged more than 1,000 feet, tossing its passengers and luggage about the cabin.

"The whole nose was pointed down at one point. I thought we were dead," passenger Dave Ferguson told WTVC-TV.

But with 87 lives in the balance, air traffic controllers talked pilot Benton West to a safe landing.

"I love my wife. I'm going to see her again," West told the station. "I've been shot down twice in Vietnam, so this--it wasn't going to end like this."

Flight 426 of AirTran Airlines, formerly known as ValuJet, was headed from Atlanta to Chicago Thursday night with 82 passengers and five crew members when it hit bad weather in Georgia along the Tennessee line.

Severe thunderstorms had been moving through the region all afternoon, but West was just above 20,000 feet and thought he was safe. Suddenly, the windshield, made of several layers of plastic and bulletproof glass, cracked and the instruments went haywire, apparently after the nose cone was damaged.

"Essentially we couldn't see out the front of the window," he said. "The plane was flying all right. We just had no indication of what speed or what altitude we were at."

Air traffic controllers had to tell him as he approached Chattanooga.

"They told him, 'You're five miles from the runway. You're heading in so-and-so direction,' " said David Garrett, air traffic manager at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

Controllers were afraid West might overshoot the runway, but he landed on target. No one was seriously hurt; two people were hospitalized with minor injuries.

Passengers boarded another plane to continue their trip.

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