Passengers and luggage tumbled about the cabin, and the jet suddenly dropped more than 1,000 feet.
With 87 lives in the balance, air traffic controllers talked Pilot Benton West through his approach.
He landed the plane safely.
"I love my wife. I'm going to see her again," West said. "I've been shot down twice in Vietnam, so this -- it wasn't going to end like this."
Dave Ferguson, a passenger from Atlanta, said: "The whole nose was pointed down at one point. I thought we were dead."
AirTran Airlines Flight 426 was flying from Atlanta to Chicago around 7:30 p.m. Thursday 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.
A passenger, Bonnie Prokopiak from Chicago, said, "It sounded like the whole roof was peeling off during the storm."
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. They broke into applause when it was announced West would be their pilot again.
The nose of the plane has a cover with hinges just like the hood of a car. It protects the weather radar system underneath and helps air flow smoothly over the plane, said Don Hanson of the Boeing Co. division that builds DC-9s. Without the cover, the instruments are damaged by the air and the plane is harder to control.
West and the co-pilot were never in danger when the windshield cracked, because it remained intact and the cockpit did not lose pressure.
AirTran, formerly known as ValuJet, changed its name more than a year after the May 11, 1996, crash in the Florida Everglades that killed 110 people. Investigators said that crash was caused by a fire fed by illegally carried oxygen generators.
Written by Richard Zoll
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