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.
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.