July 26th, 2012

Remembering United Flight 232

Last week was the 23rd anniversary of the United Flight 232 air disaster that occurred in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19 1989. I happened to come across this piece written by Captain Al Haynes, a bona fide hero of the incident. It’s a remarkable personal and emotional document as well as a historical one, and fascinating in its ability to shed light on the decision-making process a crew goes through in order that passengers can have a chance of surviving in such a grave situation.

Here’s Haynes’ description of how the crisis began:

The rest of the flight crew members were sitting there, on this beautiful day after lunch, having a cup of coffee, watching the world go by, when without any warning whatsoever there was a very loud explosion. At first, I thought it was a decompression. It was that loud and that sudden. But there was no rush of air, no change of pressure and no condensation of the air in the aircraft. So I had to figure it was something else. I saw Bill immediately grab the control yoke and the red warning lights illuminate for the autopilot. He had cut the autopilot off, I thought, and I assumed that he was taking over manual control of the aircraft. Now, I thought, we have taken care of step one in any emergency and that is that someone flies the aircraft. We have had a number of accidents in commercial aviation because everybody was working on the problem which sometimes is not a big problem in the first place, and no one is flying the aircraft. So step one, in any training centre, is that somebody flies the aircraft. That is a little difficult if you are going to be by yourself. But that is still the first thing you have to do: fly the aircraft.

It turns out that the situation was one previously thought to be impossible. Despite all the built-in protection of the aircraft’s design, the breakage of an engine fan disc took out all the airliner’s controls at once, leading to a situation that seems to have been truly unprecedented for a plane of this size:

The manner in which the engine failed resulted in high-speed shrapnel being hurled from the engine; this shrapnel penetrated the hydraulic lines of all three independent hydraulic systems on board the aircraft, which rapidly lost their hydraulic fluid. As the flight controls on the DC-10 are hydraulically powered, the flight crew lost their ability to operate nearly all of them. Despite these losses, the crew were able to attain and then maintain limited control by using the only systems still workable: the two remaining engines. By utilizing each engine independently, the crew made rough steering adjustments, and by using the engines together they were able to roughly adjust altitude.

Haynes reports:

With all those pilots on board, I then said the dumbest thing I ever said in my life: “I’ve got it”. Well, I took control of the aircraft, but I surely did not know what I was going to do with it. Bill was absolutely right – the aircraft was not responding to the control inputs. As the aircraft reached about 38 degrees of bank on its way toward rolling over on its back, we slammed the number one (left) throttle closed and firewalled the number three throttle – and the right wing slowly came back up. I have been asked how we thought to do that; I do not have the foggiest idea. There was nothing left to do, I guess, but it worked. There is another instance where I talk about luck; we tried something that we did not know what to expect from and we discovered that it worked.

For the next few minutes we were trying to fly the aircraft with the yoke and it took both pilots to do it. One person could not handle the yoke by himself because the pressures on it were too great. We both had to do it.

What follows is an amazing and inspiring description of how they flew the plane without controls. Haynes once said, of his emotional state at that time:

We were too busy [to be scared]. You must maintain your composure in the airplane or you will die. You learn that from your first day flying.

Some people are cut out for that line of work; most of us are not. And then training increases their abilities to maintain calm in the face of danger. Although, tragically, 111 people died on Flight 232, 185 lived, thanks in no small part to the incredible calm and quick action of the crew.

But it was not immediately apparent that they had survived:

Rescuers initially ignored the cockpit, as it had been compressed in the crash to approximately waist high and was completely unrecognizable. It was not until 35 minutes after the crash that rescuers discovered that the debris was the cockpit and that the four pilots were still alive inside. All four would recover from their injuries and return to work: Haynes, Records and Dvorak would return in three months, while Fitch, more seriously injured than the others, would return in 11 months

Dennis Fitch, who died nearly three months ago at the age of 69 of a brain tumor, was in the cockpit during the landing and was highly instrumental in helping bring the plane down in relative safety. But he was not part of the original crew—although he was a DC-10 instructor, fate had placed him on board the plane as a passenger, and he was called into the cockpit to help.

What did he have to say about his experience on Flight 232? This:

“For the 30 minutes I was up there,” Fitch said, “I was the most alive I’ve ever been. That is the only way I can describe it to you.”

RIP Dennis Fitch, and all who died on board Flight 232.

14 Responses to “Remembering United Flight 232”

  1. james Says:

    “I was the most alive I’ve ever been. That is the only way I can describe it to you.” has been said countless times, but it’s true. In the most extreme danger if you can keep your head on, it is most aliveyou’ll ever be.

  2. Artfldgr Says:

    when i saw your title i first thought of Ansett Airlines Flight 232.. “Miloslav Hrabinec, had boarded the flight in Adelaide with a concealed sawn-off .22 ArmaLite rifle and a sheath knife strapped to his leg.”

    different story..never mind..

    In the most extreme danger if you can keep your head on, it is most aliveyou’ll ever be.

    true… but if you seek that pleasure your going to kill yourself trying..

    besides, i hate the taste of metallic in my mouth that appears when it happens… ie. if i don’t taste the metallic, i wasn’t as close to death as i thought i was!!!

    often you get sick a bit first, then as your brain computes things, it turns to a kind of elation, but with a funny taste in your mouth (literally).

  3. IGotBupkis -- "Faecies Evenio", Mr. Holder? Says:

    >>>> Some people are cut out for that line of work; most of us are not. And then training increases their abilities to maintain calm in the face of danger.

    Jerry Pournelle tells the story of the time they set up a series of actions for John Glenn to perform. They had him hooked up to a lot of various body monitors, and, as he notes and is also noted in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the professional psychologists and physicians were having a field day, since they’d been given an unusual level of “carte blanche” when it came to devising tests to separate out the candidates for the space program from the final astronauts.

    Anyway, there was a series of operations which Glenn had to perform on a mock control board. Unknown to Glenn, they’d arranged a device that held about a quarter-ton of loose scrap metal right behind the chair he sat in, which they could drop suddenly and without any warning.

    Pournelle said that the heart monitors went “blip!” as the scrap dropped, but Glenn sailed through the operations he was supposed to perform without a hitch… then, when it was done he got out of the chair, turned around, and said, “You sonsabitches!!” 😀

    That is what makes The Right Stuff — the ability to proceed, as correctly as can be done, without hesitation, in the face of the unexpected.

    I think it goes without argument that these pilots clearly had The Right Stuff.

    This is significant in particular to both test pilots and fighter pilots, and, in fact, to all combat and emergency personnel. In combat, it allows you to gain control of the OODA Loop, while in emergency situations it allows you to save yourself, and hopefully others.

    >>>> Some people are cut out for that line of work; most of us are not. And then training increases their abilities to maintain calm in the face of danger.

    I slightly disagree with you, here, Neo, in that I do believe that there are people who have a greater natural level of this “Stuff”, as it were, but I think we all necessarily must have it, as we are each descended from a long line of generation after generation that showed they had The Right Stuff just by surviving in a very hostile world…. “Red in tooth and claw”.

    Just as with anything else, there are talented and untalented people, but most of us can be trained to behave rationally, reliably, and consistently in the face of the unexpected. This is, in large part, what basic military training does, but by no means is that the only way to develop this skill. Any sort of combat training, even in the form of video games, can enhance one’s ability to perform as needed by a situation. The people who think we need to remove the violence from video games are, IMNSHO, idiots. We should possibly tone down some of the pointlessly inaccurate gore, but many VGs do, at their heart, instill in players the experience of being hit by the unexpected, and teach them to maintain control over their responses to it.

  4. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Captain Al Haynes has been giving lectures about safety and preparedness for lo these many years. I attended one of them and believe he is doing a great service for aviation and for emrgency preparedness in general. I also had the honor of having him on board one of my flights when he was traveling to Sacramento to give his lecture. I had a chance to speak with him for a short time and found him to be quiet, humble gentleman. A true hero of the Jimmy Stewart sort.

    One thing you won’t hear advertised is the fact that this accident scenario was run in United simulators with highly qualified DC-10 crew members trying to do the same thing. None of them made it to the airport! Even though they knew from the start how the crew of 232 had controlled the aircraft. Captain Haynes calls it luck. I like to think it was skill, determination and Grace that got them to the airport.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    IGotBupkis: I didn’t say that those of us not naturally cut out for it couldn’t, with training, improve our abilities. I believe most, if not all of us, can. But only a small percentage can reach really high levels of calm in the face of danger, I believe, and they tend to be people who are naturally temperamentally and physiologically suited for it.

  6. Richard Aubrey Says:

    neo.
    Correct. Every human trait, every measurable quantity in nature, is distributed along a normal distribution.
    All may be improved by work, but some will always be better than others.
    What was interesting about the case of the woman whose car hit a tollbooth inTexas and caught fire was that the rescuer was a Texas ANG guy on the way to catch a flight. The vid is hilarious. Bunch of people standing around with their cellphones in the air and one guy gets hold of a fire extinguisher and bashes the windshield.
    Training? Nature?

  7. james Says:

    Re: Artfldgr
    It was just an observation from experience on my part. Your right though about seeking it. Also I noticed that people who acted perfectly calm, cool, etc, did not necessarily repeat it under similar cicumstances later on. Somewhat strange.

  8. LAG Says:

    How many of those pilots were former military flyers? With combat time in the cockpit? More than one–absolutely. Two–almost certainly. More? Highly likely.

    Your tax dollars at work.

  9. Oldflyer Says:

    Dennis Fitch also toured the country and gave talks about the experience. I heard him, and met him at the British Aerospace Inc Training Center in northern Virginia. It was a memorable experience.

    The pictures he used, especially the ones of the cockpit wreckage, were chilling. Fitch’s survival was particularly miraculous as he was crouched behind the center console on the final approach.

    Shortly after the accident, I wrote a letter to Captain Haynes just to reach out and tell him, pilot to pilot, how much I admired his performance during and after the crisis. I had a very nice response, which I will keep forever.

  10. Artfldgr Says:

    james,
    its not so hard to understand that context and the ability to think or prepare first. a lot of the action seekers actively prepare before they go, and so, have an advantage (sort of) over the person that rises up to the occasion.

    I have been in bad positions and the way i knew that they were THAT close was that taste and if new, the feeling of throwing up.

    I also know or have known thrill seeking kinds of people. and as you say, have seen them completely fall apart. you can actually see various utube vids of such.

    the difference? the person prepped is not prepped as to a negative outcome, they are prepped for insuring a positive outcome. ergo, if their judgement is right, they wont get hurt, but it will feel like they will.

    in the REAL situation, your not prepped, normal suddenly becomes abnormal and unreal. things slow down as your adrenaline hits, and there are only a few things that happen after that. Most will just stand there and will respond to you barking orders if you do so.

    As i said, i have been in tight situations since i was a young child, and later became a volunteer EMT as a young man.

    Context is everything, and how extreme is key. most people can handle seeing an accident, and a person with blood on the head and dazed. they get a bit more freaky when the body don’t move… and even MORE freaky when your picking up body parts and bagging them.

    and despite the ‘realism’ of hollyweird, hollyweird aint real. that is hollyweird is more real than real as its trying to create what seems real to someone who has never seen it or see it in a very limited capacity.

    even recent war movies that add it, are not even close. however those are general public movies in which the point is supposed to be the story, dressed up with some action that grips you. But the market for SAW is smaller and so saw is more real than real – and closer to real in SOME ways.

    Nothing is as desperate as a real person or animal scrambling for their life on the edge in a situation which they know deep down inside has reversed the i control nature formula of common living. you wont see an actor capture that one.

    The worst response is blind fear, its contagious. it kicks out our rational senses, and puts us in complete instinctual modes, and that mode is usually our prey nature.

    but depending on situation, that is what survives. the cool headed police died in the towers collapse, while the fearful rabbits were far away and not sucking silica, lithium, mercury, and other wonderful things released by pulverization. including their coworkers

    I am unlucky lucky… such things don’t bother me, since i have seen them since i was a child, and seen much worse as i got older.

    Sadly, most of it was the result of momentary lapses of reason or perspective and just seconds of stupid.

  11. Smaj Says:

    Very interesting reading. Thank you.

  12. james Says:

    Artfldgr’
    We seem to be talking on the same subject, but slightly out of sync. I probably haven’t done a good job with my explanation. My experience is in a rather narrow sense. It is of the place and people I served with many years ago. The majority of whom operated beyond reliance on training. These are the ones I spoke of who under similar conditions of danger and great stress reacted cooly and calmly. Still I noticed differences in behavior from fight to fight that are not readily explainable. Perhaps that’s why the saying “know your people” is so true.
    That being said I am here today because of those men. The ones I seved under, with, and led. I hope that’s clearer, for I really can be rather obtuse and plodding ask my daughter.

    ps. Don’t care much for adrenalin junkies they tend to have a short time line.

  13. waltj Says:

    One thing you won’t hear advertised is the fact that this accident scenario was run in United simulators with highly qualified DC-10 crew members trying to do the same thing. None of them made it to the airport!

    Air Canada tried this as well after the “Gimli Glider” incident, where one of their brand-new 767s ran out of fuel halfway between Montreal and Edmonton. AC was just converting from Imperial to metric measurements at the time, and to make a long story short, because of a math error, the plane ended up with half the jet-A it needed. The crew successfully made a dead-stick landing at a former military airfield (Gimli, Manitoba). Afterwards, AC duplicated the scenario on its simulators, and none of the other pilots made it. The pilot of the actual flight, Bob Pearson, had extensive experience in gliders, which surely helped. But I wonder: for the others, did knowing it was a simulator, and that they’d be going home at the end of the session, regardless of the outcome, make a difference? Pearson and his first officer, Maurice Quintal, didn’t have that option. It was literally do or die.

  14. Sam P Says:

    Simulators can’t simulate everything, pilots get feedback about the craft through their senses (even though it is sometimes misleading).

    Side note: If you ever get a chance to experience it (unlikely, looks like the last time it was produced was in 2008), Charlie Victor Romeo is definitely worth it. Flight 232 is one of (and the longest iirc) the segments.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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