20 years ago, pilot's heroic efforts saved 185 people as plane crashed
Twenty years ago, a pilot from SeaTac somehow landed a United Airlines DC-10 jet with no normal means of control onto an Iowa runway after the plane's tail engine exploded. Of the nearly 300 people aboard, 185 survived, and 111 died.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
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-granddaughter.
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.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The information in this article, originally published July 19, 2009, was corrected July 29, 2009. Capt. Al Haynes, the pilot of United flight 232 which crashed in 1989, has a surviving son and daughter, four grandkids and one great- granddaughter. A previous version of the story misidentified the gender of his great-grandchild.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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