A Tribute to Captain Dennis E. Fitch

Preface to: A Tribute to Captian Dennis  E. Fitch

United Airlines Flight 232 was a scheduled flight from Stapleton International Airport in Denver, Colorado, to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, with continuing service to Philadelphia International Airport. On July 19, 1989, the DC-10 (registration N1819U) operating the route crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, after suffering catastrophic failure of its tail-mounted engine, which led to the loss of all flight controls. 111 people died in the accident while 185 survived. Despite the deaths, the accident is considered a prime example of successful crew resource management due to the manner in which the flight crew handled the emergency, and the high number of survivors considering that the airplane was landed without conventional control. The flight crew became well known as a result of their actions that day, in particular the captain, Alfred C. Haynes, and a DC-10 instructor on board who offered his assistance, Captain Dennis E. Fitch.

This June 2009 photo provided by the Fitch family shows Dennis Fitch on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Fitch, of St. Charles, Ill., is the pilot who helped save 184 people following the July 19, 1989 crash-landing of a United Airlines DC-10 jet that killed 111 people at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Fitch died May 7, 2012 after suffering from brain cancer. He was 69.                       (AP Photo/Courtesy the Fitch Family)

A Tribute to

Captain Dennis E. Fitch

by Nancy Welz Aldrich

July 19, 1989 is a date that most pilots will remember. It is a horror that is indelibly etched into our memories. The date of United Air Lines Flight 232. We all remember watching that DC-10 as it cartwheeled down the runway in Sioux City, Iowa, in a ball of flame.

In 1989, I was flying as a 767 First Officer. For several years prior to that time, I had worked in United’s Flight Training Center as a DC-10 Instructor.

A failure of the # 2 engine sent shrapnel through the empennage of the airplane, cutting through all three hydraulic lines and resulting in a complete loss of all hydraulic systems.

The DC-10 has a very interesting hydraulic system. There are three completely independent systems. Until Flight 232, since there was no possible way to transfer or exchange fluid between systems, no one thought that all three systems could be lost at one time. With the redundancy built into the hydraulic system, if one or two systems were lost, the remaining system(s) would be adequate to maintain control. It is easy to transfer pressure from one system to another through a series of motor pumps, but not fluid.

The only place on the airplane where all three hydraulic lines are in close proximity is exactly where the shrapnel hit. If the flying debris had been just an inch or two in any direction, only one system would have been lost, not all three. What happened to Flight 232 was inconceivable.

However, as inconceivable as it was, there was a procedure for a complete hydraulic system loss written in United’s DC-10 manuals. As an instructor, I would have all my students turn to page I-58, in the “Irregulars” chapter, and read the paragraph at the top of the page. Most would scan over it, so then I would read it to them slowly, and with emphasis (which is why I can remember it so well). It read, “In case of a complete hydraulic system loss, use asymmetrical thrust to maintain control of the airplane.”

Now, I will agree with you, that is not an encouraging statement. However, it is the only possible procedure under those awful circumstances.

Captain Fitch, whom I have never met, was the only person on the airplane who was aware of that procedure. He was not on the airplane as a pilot. He was traveling as a passenger. When he recognized that the airplane was in trouble he offered his services. He was a Training Check Airman on DC-10s, and he knew the airplane very well. As soon as he recognized the condition of the airplane, he began to control it with asymmetrical thrust, the only option available.

He was able to maneuver the airplane into a position from which a landing could be made. There is debate about whether the flying captain should have reduced the power for landing. Some say that if he had left the power set as Captain Fitch had it, the airplane would have landed on the wheels. That is probably true, but what would have happened then? At the speed the airplane was going, with no brakes or directional control, the landing gear would probably have been ripped off, tearing gaping holes in the fuel tanks, and leading to much more fire. Reducing the power lead to the cartwheeling airplane. Personally, I don’t know which scenario would be best, but I think I would have taken my chances by leaving the power set and landing on the wheels. Again, I don’t know which would have been best. Both options were horrible.

On that awful day, 111 people perished in the crash. 185 survived. In my opinion, those 185 survivors, owe their lives to Captain Dennis E. Fitch.

Captain Fitch, passed away on May 6, 2012. We have lost a true hero!

By Captain Nancy Aldrich, copyright May 2012  
Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; Let such as love Your salvation say continually, The LORD Be Magnified! Psalms 40:16
Nancy Welz Aldrich


Available for speaking engagements

To order my book:     www.captaingramma.com

(The continuing Story perhaps?)


Here are just a few stories that came out of the crash of Flight 232.

Many people in the aviation industry jokingly say that MaDonnell Douglas airplanes are built like tanks, nothing can hurt them. Well, that has certainly been proven not quite true, but they are sturdy and well built machines.

Just to prove the point; when the clean up began after the crash, they found the airplane galleys intact. Of course, all the dishes and glassware was broken, but the food carts never came loose from their moorings. The galleys and serving carts were all in good condition after all that tumbling around.

For several years before 1989, I had worked with a group of Ninety Nines and United Airlines employees conducting a ‘Flight Without Fear‘ class. The Ninety Nines is an international organization of licensed women pilots. The group in Denver sponsors the ‘Flight Without Fear’ class, which is a 10 week program for people who are afraid to fly. Their success rate is over 90%.

One of our graduates was a survivor on Flight 232. She was traveling with her 7-year- old son. She and her son walked out of the corn field with little injury. A day or so later, United flew them on to Chicago to continue their trip. As they were boarding the 727, the little boy looked up at his mom, and said, “Mom, if this one falls too, I don’t think I want to try again!” I don’t think I would argue with that young man’s logic! As far as I know, both mom and son are still flying today!

One passenger walked out of the cornfield and into a bar! Sure can’t blame him for that. Most walked toward the rescue vehicles that were on the field, but this guy walked the other direction. When they tried to make sure everyone was accounted for, one was missing. This gentleman walked into the bar, had a drink or two, then got a hotel room. I seem to recall it was a couple of days before they found him.

At least one passenger called Customer Service in the days and weeks after the crash asking how many miles would be credited to their Mileage Plus Account. This person asked if he would be credited only with miles from Denver to Chicago, or Denver to Sioux City, then to Chicago. Of course, Customer Service gave him exactly what he wanted.

Everyone who survived the crash has their own personal story. These are just a few that I found interesting, and hope you did, too.

By Captain Nancy Aldrich, Aviation Writer


16 Responses to Capt. Nancy Aldrich
  1. Patricia says:

    What a wonderful article. Thank you, it is great to see we have more female writers coming aboard we welcome you. I love this website. You are a good addition. Nice tribute captain Nancy, i will be waiting to read more from you. Patty Indio CA

  2. Rico says:

    I remember that, I fly for PAL, that was a sad day for aviation . God bless you from remembering him. good blog. thank you Rico, Manila Philippines

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks, yes it was a sad day for aviation, but glad that so many survived. I regret that I never got to meet Capt. Denny and tell him what a hero he was.

  3. Darlene says:

    good job Nancy :)

  4. Doris Abbate says:

    Good job. Nancy Aldritch’s article on Captain Dennis Fitch should appear more newspapers and on television shows.  The public should be reminded how well trained our pilots are, too.

  5. CARL KUNZ says:

    Nice article!  It is nice to remenber those that have seved mankind so well. There seems to be so few of those people today.

  6. Lorraine Hiltbrand says:

    Excellent article Nancy and what a tribute to Captain Dennis Fitch.  You are certainly a great writer also

  7. Kathie Russell says:

    Very insightful article Nancy, and for those of us who only ride in airplanes, I applaud Captain Dennis Fitch. Thank you for reminding the world of another unsung hero. Kathie Russell Houston, Tx.

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks, Kathie. The world is full of unsung heros, and you are one for donating one of your kidneys to a friend. Very few people are that generous. You are an inspiration!

  8. Marty says:

    Certainly you make us all proud Nancy keep up the good work. We all depend on you to keep up the feminine end of the scale. Just because we are old timers doesn’t mean we are too old to cut the mustard right? So you go girl! Make us proud, but you always do don’t you? Remember me in Chicago a long time ago? Marty Gatwood :)

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks, Marty. I retired 12 years ago, but I do think I remember you. I plan to add new articles about once a week, so hope you will come back and read more.

  9. Dan Frye says:

    After reading captain nancys blog I googled the history of this flight because I did not remember it and I read all about the crash of this flight and the heroic deeds of this man and the way the crew handled the incident. I should say I am proud to be a pilot and also proud to be reminded about captaind Fitch. I think captain nancy did a good thing about reminding us about Fitch and the crash itself because we need to remember these things so we know these people did not die in vaine. I think there should be more blogs like this. thank you captain nancy you have made me aware of a wonderful hero and now you are my hero. I salute you and I will read your blog from now on. I am your new fan. Danny Frye, currently living in Kiev Ukraine

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks, Danny. I was surprised to get a comment from the Ukraine. I’m glad I had the chance to remind you of Flight 232, and my hero, Capt. Fitch. I only wish I could have met him. In my opinion, most pilots are heros one way or another, but he was certainly special.

  10. Vicki Willis says:

    Great article on “Flight Delays”!  My daughter works fueling planes.  She tells me how important her job is, and she is very consciencious about fueling and the paperwork.  I gained a greater respect for flight after reading these articles.  Thanks a bunch!  Vicki Willis, Pensacola, Florida

    • Nancy says:

      Thanks, Vicki, I did not know your daughter fuels airplanes. It is a dangerous and mostly thankless, but very important job. You will see a story about fueling in my book. I hope you enjoy it!

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3 Responses to A Tribute to Captain Dennis E. Fitch

  1. Mahyar says:

    Right now I watched the plane crash of Captain Dennis Fitch on a local sattlite TV in December 18 2012 and I was deeply impressed for how he devoted his life in such a horrible situation.soon after watching the documentary film I googled to find detail about it and found your Blog here.I think people like Capt.Fitch never gonna die!they are immortal!coz Art is immortal and their art is how to devote their life to help people to survive!few people are capable of such an art!
    And Thanks a lot Capt.Nancy for such a nice informative article and blog here. We should always remember people like you in our daily life!and that is The least that we can do for the nice heroic sacrifice that people like you are doing!

  2. Jim says:

    Good thing to keep Capt. Fitch in memory. Comming from a family of pilots I know/knew several who risked and even lost their lives in order to save the public. That spirit, found in many pilots, is what I respect most in the profession. Capt. Fitch did good that day but it is most impressive how hurt he still was afterwards by the fact that he couldn’t save everybody.

    One tiny thing though … This webpage makes it sound as if the nominell crew was not able to control the airplane before Capt. Fitch got into the cockpit. But that doesn’t fit other reports. As far as I know Capt. Haynes and 1st O. Records used the engines to control the plane before Capt. Fitch arrived. Capt. Fitch was later able to do better because he placed himself in the center directly behind the throttles. In my opinion the fact that the other pilots used the same technic before him does not change the respect Capt. Fitch deserves, so why not state it as it really was ?

    • haferaviation says:

      You just did set the record straight and we thank you for your input. Often we, in our effort to write a good story, focus on one point, sadly to the expense of another. But obviously without intent, so thank you for bringing that to our attention and understand it wasn’t intentionally done. thanks (jrh)

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