The intersection that marks the commercial heart of New Hope, GA, looks unremarkable…at first. You can get a quick trim and a shave at Pete’s Barbershop before picking up a few groceries across the street at Publix, or perhaps enjoy the cowboy stew at Rodney’s BBQ after a hard day’s labor. On Sunday morning you can attend services at the New Hope First Baptist Church, which stands directly across the street from the Civil War era cemetery. I traveled there recently, hoping to find the location of the crash site for the worst aviation disaster in the history of the state of Georgia. But after driving back and forth along the main drag, I came up empty handed–I couldn’t find a thing.
So I parked in front of the New Hope Martial Arts School just north of the intersection on Dallas-Acworth Highway, got out and peered up and down the road…and I still couldn’t find a marker or sign. I returned to my car and decided to go back to the old church graveyard–I’ve always considered cemeteries to be a good place to begin and finish a journey. As I walked among the worn Confederate monuments and weathered headstones my cell rang, the skies cleared, and my odyssey finally began.
It was Hugh Walters, my local contact and veteran guide. Hugh is one of the old guard, an unaffiliated Paulding County historian with a rebel mustache and deep roots in the New Hope community. He is a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, and he also belongs to New Hope Memorial Flight 242, Inc., the organization raising funds to build a proper Flight 242 crash memorial. He had been quietly observing my movements from the vantage of the church parking lot. When I looked up, he waved for me to come over.
After shaking his hand, I asked him where everything was. He looked at me with quiet amusement, and explained that we were standing smack on the spot where Flight 242 had first touched pavement in a desperate attempt at a forced landing. He also told me that we were standing in the middle of the historic New Hope Church battlefield. Back in May of 1864, General William T. Sherman came to know this area quite well, having encountered fierce resistance and heavy casualties on his way to torching Atlanta.
I looked around again. I was standing at the same intersection, but this time I saw the path that Southern Airways Flight 242 had taken straight overhead just before it crashed and burned. Located directly behind me were the crumbling but still visible entrenchments from that bloody battle in 1864–unbelievably, they still ran straight past the New Hope Church and beyond to the graveyard. It was all right here.
I needed to find a way to fit the pieces of this complex puzzle together, so I started with the National Transportation Safety Board’s Southern Airways Flight 242 accident report. The final report was dated January 26, 1978, and states in part:
The aircraft’s outboard left wing section first contacted two trees near State Spur Highway 92 (now Dallas-Acworth Highway) south south-west within the community of New Hope. The left and right wings continued to strike trees and utility poles on both sides of the highway, and 570 feet after striking the first tree in New Hope, the aircraft’s left main gear contacted the highway to the left of the center line. Almost simultaneously, the outer structure of the left wing struck an embankment, and the aircraft veered to the left and off the highway. The aircraft traveled another 1,260 feet before it came to a rest. As it traveled, the aircraft struck road signs, utility poles, fences, trees, shrubs, gasoline pumps at a gas station-store, 5 automobiles, and a truck. The total wreckage area was about 1,900 ft. long and 295 ft. wide. (Sec. 1.12) Wreckage and Impact Information
The dry language of the NTSB report doesn’t even begin to describe the human toll of the 72 people killed in that tragic crash–of the hauntingly silent descent of Southern 242 after both jet engines flamed out–of the co-pilot’s frenzied search for a suitable runway to land the stricken aircraft–or of the community unlucky enough to get caught between a powerfully destructive force and its final destination…for the second time.