On July 19, 1989, in the skies over Alta, Iowa, United Airlines Flight 232, on which my great aunt, Gladys Cooper was a passenger, began the fateful journey to a catastrophic end. At 3:16pm, the rear engine’s fan disk broke apart due to a previously undetected metallurgical defect located in a critical area of the titanium-alloy. Basically that meant that the fan disk shattered, sending shrapnel through the hydraulic lines of all three independent hydraulic systems on board the aircraft. This horrific event caused the rapid loss of all the hydraulic fluid. The subsequent catastrophic disintegration of the disk had resulted in a spray of debris with energy levels that exceeded the level of protection provided by design features of the hydraulic systems that operate the DC-10’s flight controls. The flight crew lost its ability to operate nearly all of them. In the resulting crash landing, the right wing just tapped the runway, causing the plane to cartwheel and break apart as it went careening down the runway and into a corn field. While my Great Aunt Gladys was killed in the crash, the skill of the pilot and flight crew saved 185 lives, including their own.
While listening to an audio book about World War II, and what happens when bombers flew through flak (Fl(ieger)a(bwehr)k(anone)). I knew that on at least one occasion, my dad, Allen Spencer, a Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner on a B-17 in World War II, was tasked with the job of cranking down the landing gear for landing. I don’t know what I had been thinking happened to the landing gear, maybe a close bit of flak the bent something in the gear perhaps, but what had not occurred to me was a catastrophic hit of that flak, causing all hydraulics to be lost. Nevertheless, quite likely that is what happened. It was one of the scenarios discussed in the book. As the hydraulics were lost, the red fluid was all over the floor of the aircraft, and the next thing that was required was to crank down the landing gear, because the gear could not be lowered without hydraulic fluid. Somehow, Dad’s precarious position of hanging out in the open bomb bay doors seemed like such a simple solution to the problem, albeit a heroic act, but the loss of hydraulics could have meant death to the crew. Getting the landing gear down was only part of the problem. What about the flaps, brakes, and such. These planes were in a really bad way.
Of course, my dad’s plane did land safely, given that he became my dad, but years later, when my mother, Collene Spencer’s Aunt Gladys was on a plane crippled by the loss of all hydraulics, I now realize…finally, that when my dad heard about what happened with Flight 232, as we all eventually did, he understood full well, what the flight crew had been faced with. Something I only understood from the view of a spectator…for lack of a better word. He had been there. The Flight 232 situation quite likely took my dad back some 45 years to that day when he had to crank down the landing gear on a B-17 Bomber that had been damaged by flak, probably spilling hydraulic fluid all over the floor where the crew was standing. The experience must have been awful to go through, and the thought of what happened to Flight 232, almost as bad. And yet, in typical World War II veteran style, Dad said nothing, but rather set about comforting his family over the loss.
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.
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.