My three years in the U.S. Army ended November 19, 1973 and I returned to Chattanooga as news director of WDOD Radio. My first assignment was a few days later on a stormy evening when a Delta Airlines DC-9 jet crashed at Lovell Field.
No one was killed but 38 passengers and four crew members were injured. There were 74 people on board.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of that crash 49 years ago was “wind shear during a severe thunderstorm in the area.”
I had just finished supper when the phone rang. It was Chattanooga Police Department Captain Eulas Bettis informing me of the jetliner crash. Cpt. Bettis related the media would be gathering in the pilots lounge inside the terminal and he’d inform security to expect me.
Mayor Robert Kirk Walker and newly elected Fire and Police Commissioner Gene Roberts conducted a news conference as the investigation was in the early stages. Also present were Police Chief Jerry Pitts, Assistant Chief Clyde Wilhoit and Chief Mike Quinn from the fire department. Several airport officials were present along with a Delta Airlines regional manager.
Mayor Walker said he wasn’t aware of any causalities but there were injuries. Mayor Walker said flights in and out of Chattanooga were temporarily being re-routed to Knoxville and Nashville.
Commissioner Roberts gave much credit for saving lives to the Fire Department as the jet burst into flames when it hit the ground. Roberts said a heavy downpour helped put out the fire but the situation could have been a lot worse had it not been for extensive firefighters training. He said, “I’m very proud of those who responded.” Commissioner Roberts also praised emergency room workers at both Erlanger and Memorial Hospitals.
Commissioner Roberts said every available private ambulance service was summoned to the airport to transport the injured to the hospital. This was before the establishment of the local Ambulance Service
Early the next morning Commissioner Roberts escorted reporters to the crash site. J.B. Collins with the News Free Press was one of those journalists to accompany Mr. Roberts. Mr. Collins said afterwards, “Passengers could have died in the crash.”
While walking into the terminal, one young passenger said all he wanted was to see his fiancée; he was getting married that weekend. Other passengers got their suitcases and quickly left the airport.
Back at the station, our network was calling wanting information. We were able to provide ABC radio in New York with much of Mayor Walker’s news conference. There were no cell phones and we didn’t have two way radios. The airport manager graciously let us use his office telephone.
Much credit goes to WDOD announcers Tommy Jett, Jerry Pond and Lloyd Payne who expedited getting our stories on the air immediately. The Chattanooga plane crash was lead story on the national networks all evening.
Delta airlines officials said the plane was damaged beyond repair.
Mayor Walker and Commissioner Roberts were very helpful in getting crash details to this young reporter just back from Germany as technology was much different nearly 50 years ago. I felt very proud that WDOD News was able to provide accurate information in a timely manner to our listeners and several news outlets that sent the stories all over the world.
Here is the NTSB report from the crash:
DELTA AIR LINES, INC.
McDONNELL DOUGLAS DC-9-32, N3323L
CHATTANOOGA MUNICIPAL AIRPORT
NOVEMBER 27, 1973
About 1851 e. s.t. on November 27, 1973, Delta A i r Lines Flight
516, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32, N3323L, crashed while making an
ILS approach to runway 20 at Chattanooga Municipal Airport, Chattanooga,
Tennessee. Seventy-four passengers and five crew members were aboard
the aircraft. Thirty-eight passengers and four crew members were injured;
there were no fatalities.
The aircraft struck the approach lights 1,600 feet from the runway
threshold. After initial impact, the aircraft continued through the
approach lights and struck a flood-control dike located 785 feet from the
runway threshold. The aircraft stopped on the airport 450 feet beyond
the approach end of the runway and 250 feet left of the runway centerline.
The aircraft was destroyed.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable
cause of the accident was that the pilot did not recognize the need to
correct an excessive rate of descent after the aircraft had passed decision
height. This occurred despite two verbal reports of increasing sink rate
by the first officer. The captain disregarded the reports of the first
officer, possibly because of the influence of a visual illusion caused by the
refraction of light through the heavy rain on the windshield. The excessive
rate of descent was initiated by a wind shear condition which existed in the
lower levels of the approach path and a glide slope that tended toward the
lower signal limit.