By Dominic Gates
Twenty years ago today, passengers and crew aboard United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Chicago heard a loud midair blast at the rear of the plane. The engine mounted in the tail of the DC-10 had exploded at 37,000 feet.
With two good engines still operating on the wings, Capt. Al Haynes, of Seattle, wasn't unduly worried as he shut down the fuel flow to the dead engine.
But shrapnel from the exploding engine had severed all the hydraulic lines.
From that moment on, Haynes couldn't budge any of the flight-control surfaces on the wings and the tail. It was as if, when driving a car, the steering wheel would no longer turn the wheels.
Haynes was flying a wide-body jet with almost 300 people on board. That included 52 children, an unusually large number because of a marketing promotion that offered a one-cent kids fare.
Speaking in his modest SeaTac home Saturday after he'd umpired a Little League championship game, Haynes said he wasn't scared.
"We were too busy" to be scared, Haynes said. "You must maintain your composure in the airplane or you will die. You learn that from your first day flying."
The terrible drama that followed turned Haynes, now 77, into the Capt. Sully of his day. Yet Haynes' story is not so easy as that of Chesley Sullenberger, who in January landed a US Airways plane safely in the Hudson River after a bird strike.
Sully had considerable control of his crash landing, and all his passengers walked off the airplane.
On July 19, 1989, by varying the power to the engines on either wing of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, Haynes and his crew managed to roughly guide this almost-unflyable airplane to a crash landing 44 minutes later at the nearest airport, in Sioux City, Iowa.
United pilots trying to do the same thing later on flight simulators could never manage to repeat the remarkable feat of guiding the plane down with all its flight controls shot.
Haynes' heroic efforts prevented his airplane from plummeting to the ground out of control and saved the lives of 185 of the people aboard. But when United flight 232 slammed onto the Sioux City runway, the jet cartwheeled, broke up, and exploded in flames, killing 111 of those aboard.
All three of the flight crew, who had to be cut from the wreckage that day, now live in the Greater Seattle area. Co-pilot Bill Records lives in Woodinville and flight engineer Dudley Dvorak in Lakewood, Pierce County.
Haynes gives credit to the whole crew, including a fourth person who came forward from the passenger cabin during the emergency: Denny Fitch, a United Airlines DC-10 instructor, offered to help and played a key role inside the cockpit.
"None of us knew what to do," Haynes said. "We were all making suggestions. It was the crew working together."
Damage to the tail made the jet constantly drift to the right. To make it to Sioux City without steering, Haynes and his crew spiraled the plane in constant right-hand turns, straightening up as best they could when they were pointed in the desired direction.
Fitch, standing between the seats, controlled the throttles, following instructions from the others to give more power on the right or the left.
"We couldn't hold a heading. We drifted off to the right," Haynes said. "So we just continued the right turn and picked up the heading when we came around."
By this means, they made their way to within sight of the Sioux City airport.
Haynes had enough sang-froid to laugh during the approach, when the tower controller told him he was cleared to land on any runway.
"Roger. You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?" Haynes shot back.
"I just wanted to hit Iowa," he said Saturday.
The airplane was sinking too fast, but there was nothing the crew could do to slow it.
"I'm not going to kid you," Haynes told the passengers over the cabin intercom. "We have a serious situation."
He told them to brace for a landing that would be harder than anything they'd ever experienced.
At the last moment, the right wing dipped, struck the runway first, and caused the plane to cartwheel. The pieces slid into the Iowa corn as a fireball of erupting fuel engulfed the fuselage.
The cause of the engine blowout was later found to be a manufacturing defect in the titanium disk that held the fan. A crack had grown slowly and escaped detection during maintenance.
After the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration tightened inspection procedures. And airplane designers introduced valves that will seal the hydraulic lines forward of any possible breach toward the tail.
Haynes said it took many sessions with a psychiatrist to overcome his survivor's guilt. He resumed flying three months after the accident; mandatory retirement at 60 followed two years later.
Today, besides umpiring Little League in the summer and announcing high-school football, he travels around the country giving dozens of talks on safety procedures and coping with emergencies.
He's also had his share of personal tragedy and loss since then. Saturday was the 10th anniversary of his wife's death. And in 1996, a 37-year-old son, Tony, died in a motorbike accident.
Yet he considers himself lucky that he has a surviving son and daughter, four grandkids and one great-grandson.
And five years ago, he got some payback for his efforts in Sioux City. Haynes' only daughter needed a bone-marrow transplant but had no health insurance. He put out an appeal for the $250,000 needed for the treatment.
The pilots union, the flight-attendants union and survivors of United 232 rallied and raised the money. His daughter is doing well.
In Sioux City today, informal memorials are planned for the anniversary of the tragedy.
In SeaTac, after visiting his wife's grave Saturday, Haynes says he will have a quiet Sunday alone.
I thought it would be interesting to post this after the Sully story. I remember vividly when this happened, and it certainly was a crash that changed aviation and how airlines conduct inspections. The Sioux City paper naturally has some good coverage today of the anniversary: http://www.siouxcityjournal.com/ I also find it sadly ironic his wife died ten years nearly to the day after the crash. :-( I also wanted to provide some background as a lead into this story:
Flight 232: Attendant pledges to renew fight for children
By Michele Linck | Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009
SIOUX CITY -- Former United Airlines flight attendant Jan Brown spent the years following the crash of Flight 232 campaigning relentlessly to change commercial airlines' regulations to require the use of child safety seats for children under age 2.
Today she is frustrated by the 2005 decision of the Federal Aviation Administration to stop exploring new safety provisions for young children aboard aircraft, continuing the practice of allowing those under age 2 to sit on someone's lap. FAA regulations do require that children age 2 and older have their own seat and recommend those under 40 pounds use an FAA-approved child (car) safety seat.
Brown took a hiatus from her campaign after 2004 -- "I felt with the Bush administration you couldn't break through the brick wall they set up," she said. She vows now, at the 20th anniversary of the crash, to resume her efforts, trying a different tack.
"I have something in mind," she said in an interview with the Journal earlier this week, hinting that it may involve a Congressional election in her home state of Illinois.
Brown was the chief flight attendant aboard Flight 232 when it slammed into the runway at Sioux Gateway Airport in 1989. The crew had had 40 minutes to secure the cabin and prepare the passengers for an emergency landing. That included the four parents with "lap children," children under the age of 2 who were sitting their parent's lap.
"I made an announcement to parents to place their small children on the floor at their feet," Brown told a National Transportation Safety Board panel in February 2004. "Other flight attendants had also given parents pillows and blankets to wrap and buffer their children before placing them on the floor.
"What sounded plausible in emergency training class seemed ludicrous in a real life crisis," Brown told the NTBS.
As the plane smashed into the runway with "indescribable force," Brown was knocked unconscious and the plane became engulfed in fire. She came to, assisted passengers in exiting what was left of the plane, then exited herself, only to encounter the mother of a 22-month-old boy trying to re-enter the aircraft.
"You told me to put my son on the floor, I did and he's gone," the mother told Brown, according to a record of her 2004 testimony.
`Safer than driving'
FAA Great Lakes area spokesman Tony Molinero said the FAA has run "a very strong campaign" over the past 10 years advocating the use of child safety seats for infant air travel and was looking at making new rules for child safety until 2005.
Then the FAA announced it would not make child seats mandatory for children under age 2. The decision was based on statistics, Molinero said.
"Statistics showed families were safer traveling in the air and if we did mandate child seats, a lot of families (because of the cost of an extra ticket) would end up traveling on the road, where the accident rate is higher," he said.
He said while 43,000 people die each year on U.S. highways, on average, only 12 or fewer die, on average, on commercial air flights. "Sometimes it's zero, sometimes it's much higher."
That rationale makes Brown furious.
"There are thousands of children over 2 riding on airplanes every day," she said. "It doesn't take a giant leap to realize that parents don't stop flying when they have to buy a ticket."
Brown said not just crashes, but turbulence, too, can send lap children flying through the cabin. The force of gravity can increase the effective weight of even a small child to 100 pounds or more. Unlike a car, where a child must be in a car seat to go just 60 mph, airline passengers are going 500 mph holding their child on their lap, she notes.
Brown retired from United Airlines in 1998, but not from her mission to make airlines put very young children in safety seats.
"I am determined to see this happen," she said.
I don't understand why this hasn't been made into law. We've made laws to protect children in vehicles, and while flying may be safer, why would airlines want to take that risk? Extra expense of a seat or not, it's better than losing a child.