Yesterday, while watching television, one of the shows I like to watch…Why Planes Crash…came on. This particular episode included the cause of Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa. This particular crash had an enormous impact on my own life, and that of my mother’s family. It was the one in which my Great Aunt Gladys Pattan Byer Cooper was killed. I have watched the footage numerous times, as well as the episode of Why Planes Crash that contained the answer, but it seems that each time, I learn something new about the crash. I’m not sure why some of the information didn’t stick in my head the first time it was aired, because it most certainly was information that was pointed out. Nevertheless, it didn’t stick in my head that first time or even the subsequent times…until now.
I have often wondered why it takes so long to find the cause of some of the plane crashes…especially the ones where there were survivors and where the black box was so easily found, but sometimes it just does take time. One of the possibilities is that some of the tiny parts, or even large parts of the plane seem to be missing. That was the case with Flight 232. The entire fan disk of its tail mounted General Electric CF6-6 engine failed and disintegrated. I’m sure that the investigators knew that something happened to the fan disk, but without it, they could not say what happened. The initial explosion that was heard was over Alta, Iowa…about 60 miles from their final crash site in Sioux City, Iowa. This was the point when the fan disk disintegrated. Now, 60 miles may not seem like such a large distance, but add to that the fact that the plane circled around trying to burn up it’s fuel, and trying to stay upright, and the fact that when the fan disk disintegrated, it was traveling at a tremendous amount of speed. In the end, the fan disk was discovered quite by accident three months later, on October 10, 1989, when Janice Sorenson, a farmer harvesting corn near Alta, Iowa, felt resistance on her combine, and after getting out to investigate, discovered most of the fan disk with a number of blades still attached partially buried in her cornfield. The rest of the fan disk and most of the additional blades were located later in the harvest. That would be the point that the investigation could finally bring to a conclusion the actual cause of the crash that had taken my great aunt’s life.
That event has always been a little fuzzy for me. Not the crash, or even the loss of Aunt Gladys, but the whole investigation. For years I’m not sure I really wrapped my mind around the cause of the crash…at least not until I saw the animated reenactment of the crash. Then it became crystal clear what had happened. The breaking up of the fan disk, caused by a crack that happened when the disk was made, due to impurities in the Titanium, brought down the plane. The crew, including a flight instructor who happened to be onboard, did an amazing job in their efforts not to crash. In the end, it would be on slight dip of the wind caused by a failed hydraulic system that would cause it to tap the ground and cartwheel the plane. It was the event that would forever change our family, from one who had never had someone killed in an airplane crash, to one the had. We would never forget it, and we deeply miss Aunt Gladys to this day.
Years ago, many people thought that anyone who was trying to invent an airplane was pretty much insane…saying, that “if man were meant to fly, God would have given him wings” as their reasoning. I’m sure that those same people reiterated their thoughts on the matter, with each new plane crash…basically jumping on the chance to say, “I told you so!” Of course, these days, no one thinks that way, whether they like to fly or not. I guess a fear of flying and the idea that it is a foolish pipe dream aren’t the same things at all. Still, while man has proven over the years that flight is possible, and in fact mostly safe, there are some airplane crashes that that will forever be embedded in our minds. For me, of course, the one that I can picture in my mind at the drop of a hat, is Flight 232 that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. This was the crash that took the life of my Great Aunt Gladys Pattan Byer Cooper. That pilot was so close to landing that plane safely, and would have, in fact, if the plane hadn’t put in one last effort to turn over due to a major loss of hydraulics. The resulting crash made me wonder how anyone survived…much less the 185 out of 296 people on board. The only reason they survived was the skill of the pilot…and much prayer.
Another plane crash that has stayed in my memory was the crash of the Concorde, that occurred on this day, July 25, 2000. The Concord was a beautiful plane, and by far the most luxurious one of its time. I’m not sure there are even any planes that are more luxurious today…although the Boeing 787 might be. Dubbed the Dreamliner, it gives the indication that it might out class the Concorde. Nevertheless, in its day, the Concorde was the end all, beat all of airplanes. The thing that always amazes me is that sometimes it is the tiniest of things that ends up bringing down a plane. Much like the bird strike that brought down US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.
The Concorde was downed be a small piece of metal on the runway…that had fallen off of another plane. Air France Flight 4590 left DE Gaulle Airport for New York carrying nine crew members and 96 German tourists who were planning to take a cruise to Ecuador. That piece of metal shredded the tire that ran over it, throwing pieces of the tire into one of the engines and fuel tanks, causing a disabling fire. The pilot had no idea what was about to happen, but just moments later the plane plunged to the ground near a hotel in Gonesse, France. A huge fireball erupted and all 105 people on the plane were killed immediately. The Concorde, the world’s fastest commercial jet, had enjoyed an exemplary safety record up to that point, with no crashes in the plane’s 31 year history. That crash, however, marked the beginning of the end for the Concorde. The last flight of the Concorde was on October 24, 2003. What was supposed to mark the first of a future of supersonic, fast paced air travel, was brought to a disappointing halt. Air travel has taken on a much slower pace since that time.
As a writer, I don’t usually have very much time for reading. Yesterday, however, on a long drive with my mom and sister, Cheryl, heading to Wisconsin to visit our family out there, I found myself with a few minutes to read. Since being in contact with Jerry Schemmel, who is a survivor and hero of the United Flight 232 crash in Sioux City, Iowa, I have been thinking a lot about the plane crash that took my Great Aunt Gladys’ life. Jerry wrote a book about his experience, and I have purchased that, but while waiting for that book, I had started another book about that flight, and the miracle that it really was. There is much that we really had no idea about when that crash took place 25 years ago July 19th. For one thing, the DC-10 should not be able to fly…at all…with the hydraulics gone, and yet that crew managed to keep that plane in the air for an astonishing 45 minutes after losing the number two engine and all of their hydraulics.
That situation…total loss of hydraulics should have immediately thrown the plane into a rollover situation…meaning that it should have rolled onto its back. The events that would have followed should have been a fast spiral downward, causing the wings and tail to break off of the plane. The plane should have then gone barreling into the ground like a rocket, resulting in the instant death of all persons on board. The fact that none of the things that should have happened…did happen, caused all those who were trying to help the plane to assume that the pilots has misdiagnosed the problem that the plane had. Some even assumed that they could land in Chicago, Illinois, instead of Sioux City, Iowa. I’m sure that to the crew, this all seemed incredible. The people helping them should have known that they knew how to read their instruments, and they did, but what they were saying was impossible…totally impossible. Nevertheless, it was happening, and the pilots were flying it…against all odds…against the impossible. They even called the people at United Airlines Systems Aircraft Maintenance, also known as SAM to see if they could help. They thought the pilots had misdiagnosed the problem too, until they confirmed that the hydraulic fluid had all leaked out. The people at SAM said later that they had no idea what to say to the crew, because they felt like they were talking to four dead men. They didn’t believe anyone could survive it.
There was no procedure for a full loss of hydraulics. Flight simulators didn’t teach that scenario, because it was not considered survivable. It had never happened…and if it had, no one survived, because this was not a survivable event…at least it wasn’t until that day. This pilot and co-pilot were flying by the seat of their pants, and the normal fixes wouldn’t work. Captain Al Haynes simply moved on instinct when he used the throttles. He thought he had seen something in the manual about it, but I’m not sure it was there, because it was not supposed work. He was basically using power to control the plane. The plane wanted to turn over, and so, using asymmetric thrust, he was able to keep it making wide loops, and finally ended up at the airport. It would also take the help of a fourth person to make this work. Thankfully they had DC-10 instructor, Dennis Fitch on board to handle the extra need. Each loop caused them to lose altitude, and so at one point they didn’t think they would make the airport. In the end, they had to use a runway that had not been used or maintained in a year. That did not contribute to the crash, however.
I have watched the crash video many times, and you can see that the crew…and I do say the crew, because it took all three of them, and the instructor to run all the controls that it took to maneuver the plane…almost landed the plane safely. They were so close. Then the plane tried one more time to roll over, causing the right wing to tap the ground. That was all it took to cartwheel the plane down the runway. In watching that crash, I have no idea how anyone survived it at all…much less more than half of the occupants, including all of the crew. It was a miracle of God, and an answer to the many prayers that were being prayed on board that day. I wish Aunt Gladys had survived, but that was not to be. Nevertheless, there were many heroes that day, and the crew who flew that plane were definitely the greatest.
As a little girl, I remember when Aunt Gladys would come over to the house and show my mom her Avon products. Of course, with 5 girls in the house, Avon products were very important little items…whether we were allowed to wear make-up yet or not, which by the way, we weren’t yet. Nevertheless, Aunt Gladys didn’t seem to care that our curiosity would probably not bring a big purchase. She treated my sisters and me just like we were her biggest clients. Aunt Gladys knew that little girls and make-up simply go together.
Aunt Gladys always looked so pretty, and she always dressed up. When she came over, it was like having a movie star show up at your door. Mom told me that she wore silk stockings, and they were very soft. She never minded when little hands wanted to see just how soft and silky they were. All she ever said, was, “Be careful not to snag them.” So many people would have wanted Mom to send the kids outside, so the adults could talk, but not Aunt Gladys, and I don’t think it was just because she was our great aunt either. I just think she understood how little girls felt about make-up and such…so much so, in fact, that she would always give us those little sample tubes of lipstick…every time she came over. I don’t know what they cost her, but we always felt special because we got those.
My Aunt Gladys died in the crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa on July 19, 1989. She comes to my mind often, and sometimes I think I see her here in town. There is a woman here in Casper, who looks a little like my Aunt Gladys, and seeing her keeps Aunt Gladys on my mind periodically. It’s odd how that can happen sometimes…you are going through your day, and suddenly you see someone who takes you decades back in time…and you don’t even know them. They just remind you of someone else.
My Great Aunt Gladys, passed away on July 19, 1989. She was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 232, which crashed at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa. It was a crash I’m sure many of you will remember. According to the pilot on that flight, Captain Al Haynes a veteran pilot with 30,000 hours of flying time, “When the #2 hydraulics on the DC-10 blew, or when the #2 engine blew, it took out the #2 accessory drive section, which took out the hydraulics for the #2 system. And some 70 pieces of shrapnel penetrated the horizontal stabilizer and severed the #1 line and the #3 line, and as a result we ended up with no hydraulics.”
It was a situation that had a 1 in 1 billion chance of happening, but on July 19, 1989, on United Airlines Fight 232 which had taken off from Stapleton International Airport in Denver, Colorado, bound for Chicago, Illinois with 296 souls on board, one of which was my Great Aunt Gladys, it did happen. Of the 285 passengers and 11 crew members, 184 people would survive the subsequent crash of United Airlines Flight 232…sadly, my Great Aunt Gladys was not one of them. The airline was having a special that day, in which children flying with a parent flew for half price. That special put an unusually large number of children on the flight…52 to be exact. A number of those kids were traveling alone. Four children were “lap” children…children without a seat of their own. Eleven children, including 1 “lap” child died in the disaster.
The passengers on board the flight knew they were in trouble for 45 minutes before the crash. I have often thought about what my Aunt Gladys was thinking about during those 45 minutes. Her family, of course…hoping she would be able to return home to see them again. Worry and fear must have entered in, and it makes me so sad to think that her last minutes were spent in such a manner. My mom said something to me after we found out that she had not survived, that makes me think that she was thinking of one other thing…the children. Mom said that Aunt Gladys would have wanted the children to survive, because they had not had a chance at life yet. I think that is true, because Aunt Gladys was always so sweet to the children. She never said one harsh word to me or my sisters…even when we wanted to play with her Avon products or touch her silk nylons, because they were so soft.
During the crash, the plane cartwheeled, and possessions where thrown all over the place. So came about the misinformation that made us believe that Aunt Gladys had survived. Her purse went to the hospital with another woman. Upon further investigation, they would find that it was not my aunt, but not before the news media had listed her as a survivor. It was not their fault, but nevertheless heartbreaking to our family. Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, and the subsequent loss of my dear Great Aunt Gladys. Sometimes, when I see a woman who resembles her, my heart still jumps, because it’s almost like she is still here. I suppose that happens because we could not view her body, and maybe that isn’t the worst thing. At least we can still imagine her among the living. We love and still miss you Aunt Gladys.