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.