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?)
A LITTLE MORE ON FLIGHT 232
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
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