Hello again, this year is the 30th anniversary of another, yet more miraculous crash. 30 years ago this coming Friday, United Airlines flight 232, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, flying from Denver Stapleton airport, in Colorado to Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania via a stopover at Chicago O’Hare airport in Illinois, made an emergency landing in Sioux City, after a blowout of the tail mounted #2 engine disabled the hydraulic system, rendering the trijet nearly unflyable. Amazingly despite the violence of the crash-landing, over 170 of the passengers and all three pilots survived the crash.
Flight 232 started off perfectly normally in Denver with the boarding of the 295 passengers and an uneventful takeoff. In the cockpit was captain Alfred C. Haynes, first officer Bill Records, and flight engineer Dudley Dvorak and crewing the cabin were 11 flight attendants, including one of them, was Jan Brown.
Takeoff and climb out were completely normal and it seemed it was going to be yet another milk run for Haynes and the other pilots. Just hours into the flight and over Alta, Iowa, a resonating bang shattered the tranquility in the cabin. In the cockpit, with Records hand-flying the jet, the shock also shook the pilots. Seeing the indications for the tail mounted engine, Haynes ran through the engine shutdown checklist as trained and within seconds the failed engine was shut down.
Just as it seemed the crew’s problems were over, things got worse, with Records saying he had no control over the plane at all. Jumping into action, Haynes ordered Dvorak to do a systems check. But what he would see on the hydraulic system panel would make Dvorak’s blood turn to ice. Turning to Haynes, Dvorak shouted to Haynes, “Al, we’ve lost all hydraulics!”
Dvorak's words made Haynes’ and Records’ blood run cold, knowing that without the hydraulics, the plane would be uncontrollable. Haynes had Dvorak run through the emergency checklists section of the DC-10 Flight Manual for a complete hydraulic system failure checklist. But a complete hydraulic system failure was nowhere to be found in the flight manual. Moments later, Haynes’ worst fears were realized when the right wing began dipping down, and the pilots were powerless to do anything.
Having been an experienced pilot, Haynes suggested that Records use the engines and Haynes’ suggestion paid off, and the crew were able to pull the plane out of what would have been a terminal dive. But they weren’t out of danger yet. Getting on the cabin interphone, Haynes asked Jan Brown to see if there was anyone who could help. Following Haynes’ orders Jan went looking for a pilot and she found one.
Dennis Fitch, a United Airlines DC-10 instructor, just happened to be onboard and offered to help, and Haynes readily accepted his assistance. Haynes’ decision is a perfect example of the newly minted CRM program in action, having been implemented 11 years earlier, after the crash of United Airlines flight 173.
Once getting in the cockpit, Fitch happened to take a look at the flight engineers panel and the indications for the hydraulic system horrified him. Once he was briefed on the situation, Fitch made the transition from a passenger to a crew member and took the engine throttles.
Once again, it seemed the plane had a mind of its own when it started doing climbing and descending oscillations. Fitch combated this with switching engine speeds of the two wing engines. With their improvised technique of using the engines as improvised controls, the crew were able to stabilize the plane. Knowing they would be unable to continue to Chicago, the crew made the decision of diverting to nearby Sioux City airport.
With Fitch flying the plane using the engines and both Records and Dvorak monitoring him, Captain Haynes called flight attendant Brown into the cockpit and told her to prepare the cabin for an emergency landing. Due to no infant restraints, flight attendant Jan Brown had parents who were flying with lap children put their children on the cabin floor, a decision that still haunts her to this day. Moments before the anticipated landing, the emergency landing checklist was completed; the wings were level and the gear was down, success seemed to be within their grasp.
Having returned to her jumpseat, flight attendant Jan Brown was about to tell the passengers to assume brace positions when captain Haynes overrides her on the PA system. Moments later, just when a successful landing seemed certain, the left wing started dropping down. Realizing what was happening, Haynes frantically ordered Fitch to increase power on the left engine, and increase power on the right, but it was too late. The engines didn’t respond in time, Haynes, Records, Devorak, and Fitch were all staring defeat in the face.
Seconds later, the DC-10 slammed into the runway with the bloodcurdling screech of metal skidding on pavement, and a massive shower of sparks, only to be followed with the horrifying orange glow of fuel fed flames shooting from the rupturing tanks.
As the DC-10 slid along the ground, it started breaking apart, the tail section containing the failed #2 engine snapped off like a twig and hurtled down the runway and rested in a nearby field. The rest of the plane, with the passengers and crew still inside, tumbled down the runway and also broke apart. The emergency services, having been positioned on both sides of the runway, watched in horror as the now burning DC-10 broke apart right in front of them, their ears filled with the sickening sound of screeching and groaning metal combined with the roaring of fuel fed flames and sparks.
Just as it seemed it would go on forever, the wreckage of the broken DC-10 stopped and the emergency services jumped into action, starting to pour foam on the burning pieces of the trijet and pulling survivors from the wreckage. Despite the intensity of the fire and clouds of thick black smoke, responders were able to pull 185 passengers and crew, including Brown, Haynes, Records, Dvorak and Fitch to safety. But success was bittersweet, the plane still crashed and sadly, 111 people had died.
While the survivors were being treated at area hospitals, a team from the NTSB was dispatched to Sioux City to find out what happened. But as the investigators began their work, they had no way of knowing that a crucial piece of evidence was already missing.
Upon inspecting the remains of the tail mounted engine, investigators from the NTSB found the engine fan disc was completely gone, and in a panic put out a $10,000 reward for anyone who could find the disc.
Several months later, a woman farmer found the disc in her field when she was harvesting the corn in her combine. She and her husband received the money and donated $5,000 to charity. With the engine fan disc now in their possession, the investigators could finish their work.
After a long investigation, the final report by the NTSB revealed the engine failure was caused by a bad batch of titanium used to forge the engine’s fan disc. A microscopic imperfection in the titanium mutated into a crack that grew each time the engine was operated. Over the course of 18 years, the crack in the engine fan disc grew and grew until on July 19, 1989, the crack reached a length of 18 inches long and the weakened fan disc blasted itself apart. The pieces of the engine punched holes in the horizontal stabilizer and breached the hydraulic system in multiple places, and in seconds, the entire hydraulic system was drained of oil. With the hydraulic systems drained, the DC-10 was rendered nearly unflyable.
By the late 1990’s, the saga of flight 232 had mostly been forgotten, but 23 years later, the saga would be given a shot in the arm when in early 2012, Dennis Fitch, having long retired from united and engaging in motivational speaking, had developed and was diagnosed with brain cancer. Sadly, the diagnosis was bleak for the retired pilot, and despite aggressive medical treatment, Fitch succumbed to the disease and died on June 1, 2012 at the age of 69.
Fitch’s death would reignite the interest of the public in the saga of flight 232 and sadden Haynes, Dvorak, Records, Brown, and all of the surviving passengers and crew. Now with the 30th anniversary nearing, this event is a resounding reminder of the importance of Crew Resource Management and teamwork in today’s airlines’ operations.
This post is dedicated to Dennis “Denny” Fitch, a hero, who sadly, like all the greats, was gone too soon.
R.I.P, Dennis Fitch. 1943-2012