Actual Factual Georgia: Bird strike cause of 1973 plane crash

Q: If my memory serves me right, there was another plane crash in the early 1970s. A Learjet departed DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, hit birds on takeoff and lost both engines. I think it crashed on Peachtree Industrial and there were fatalities. What were the details?

—Charlie Gregory, Marietta

A: You have an excellent memory.

Like the 1970 accident that was the subject of last week’s Actual Factual, another plane crashed shortly after taking off from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport on Feb. 26, 1973.

The sky was overcast on that winter day when a Learjet Model 24 carrying five passengers and two pilots lifted off from the airport just inside I-285.

The plane was gaining altitude when a flock of birds flew across its path, many colliding with plane.

Smoke immediately began streaming from the one of the engines.

Here’s the exchange between the tower and the pilot, which is in the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident report.

Tower: “Lear 454RN it appeared the left engine laid a pretty good layer of smoke out of the left side there for approximately 300 or 400 feet.”

454RN: “We just hit some birds.”

Tower: “Roger, you turning to land?”

454RN: “Don’t believe we’re gonna make it.”

That was the last transmission from the plane.

The Learjet hit an apartment building about 2 miles from the airport, missed the area’s busy streets and ended up in what The Associated Press reported at the time was “one of the few wooded areas near the airport.”

The impact killed all seven people on the plane, five of who were from Metro Atlanta. A man on the ground was severely burned when he was doused by fuel as the plane passed overhead.

Three of the passengers worked for Machinery Buyers Corp. and were on their way to Miami.

Newspaper articles from the day after the crash quoted witnesses as saying a large flock of birds – attracted to the area by a nearby landfill — collided with the plane shortly after takeoff, which was confirmed by the NTSB report.

The plane’s windshield was covered with bird remains and about 15 dead cowbirds were found at the end of the runway. The left engine showed damage from at least “14 separate bird strikes” and at least five strikes were visible on the right engine.

The report blamed the crash on the birds and stated that FAA and the airport authority were aware of “bird hazard” at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport at that time.

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