At just after 2:00pm on July 19, 1989, United Air Lines Flight 232 took off from Denver on its way to Philadelphia with a stop in Chicago. It didn’t arrive in Philly…and it didn’t arrive in Chicago. But what did happen with this aircraft is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of flight.
The DC-10 is a plane with three engines, one under each wing and a “middle” engine, in the rear beneath the rudder. An hour into the flight, the center engine experienced one of the rarest of failures…the fan disk shattered. The shards passed through the nacelle and into the horizontal stabilizers at the plane’s rear, cutting the lines of all three hydraulic systems, the odds of which are so remote as to hardly be contemplated (experts have said a billion to one). Once the fluid drained, the pilots lost control of the ailerons, rudders, flaps, spoilers, landing gear brakes, and nosewheel steering. Flight 232 was at 37,000 feet, and the pilots had nearly zero control of the plane.
Captain Haynes and First Officer Records were joined by Dennis Fitch, a pilot deadheading on the flight. They discovered that the plane could be pseudo-controlled by adjusting the throttles on the left and right engines. Making mostly right turns (the plane could turn to the right more easily), the horribly crippled craft made its way to Sioux City, Iowa, where they attempted to land.
But landing with no flaps, no control, and only the throttle to drive was nearly impossible. Just before the plane’s wheels touched (at nearly double the normal landing speed and six times the normal descent rate), the plane tilted and smacked the runway, broke into several pieces and skidded down the runway, enveloped in flames. Amateur video captured the event and it’s probably the most incredible footage you’ve seen.
Miraculously, 184 of 296 passengers and crew survived a crash through which, realistically, no one should have lived. But how? Well, those factors may be the most remarkable part of this story.
- Of course, there was the incredible skill of the pilots to put the plane on the ground. By rights, it should have been a smoking hole in the ground somewhere.
- The location. Sioux City’s EMS structure is one of the premier systems in the country and, once informed of 232’s approached, no city could have responded as well.
- The Sioux City airport was home to the 185th Air National Guard Fighter Wing (now a Refueling Wing), and July 19th was their training day, so a full contingent of National Guardsmen were there to assist.
- The emergency coincided with the 4:00pm shift change of emergency elements in Sioux City, so all staff were held over, providing hospitals, ambulance services, and fire stations with double staff.
An incredibly improbable set of circumstances led to the crash of UAL 232 that July afternoon, but an equally improbable set of circumstances substantially reduced the loss of life.