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United 232 and the Miracle in a Cornfield

United 232 and the Miracle in a Cornfield

By Carl M. Cannon - July 18, 2014

Twenty-five years ago today, a traveling Chicago-based corporate accountant named Joseph Trombello finished up the audit he was doing of a hotel property in Grand Junction, Colo., ate dinner, called his wife, and went to sleep.

The next day, he was scheduled to fly back, via Denver’s Stapleton International Airport, to O’Hare, and his home 15 minutes from the airport in Vernon Hills, Ill.

After a mechanical delay in Grand Junction and a bumpy ride on the propeller plane to Denver, Trombello learned he had a two-hour delay at Stapleton. His company flew him first class, but it was more important to Joe Trombello to get home a couple of hours sooner to see his family. So he queued up and asked a gate attendant: Could he fly coach on an earlier flight to Chicago?

The answer was maybe -- he was put on the standby list for United Airlines Flight 232. When his name was called for that flight, he was happy, despite being in a middle seat. “I really didn’t care,” he explained later, “because I would get home early.”

Actually, nobody on that airplane would get home early that afternoon. Less than 2 hours after takeoff, United 232 ended in a fiery and crumpled mass in an Iowa cornfield just off a runway at the Sioux City airport. Of the 296 souls aboard that plane, 112 of them wouldn’t survive the day at all.

***

United Airlines Flight 232 lifted off from the Denver runway at 2:09 p.m. on July 19, 1989. Joseph Trombello later remembered the kind of minutiae one would normally forget after a flight ended: that he was seated in 18-B; that all his writing materials were stowed in the overhead compartment; that a Norwegian exchange student next to him in the window seat was listening to music on her earphones that was so loud it annoyed him.

The details are contained in his book, “Miracle in the Cornfield,” published after he was safe and sound. Like the other 183 survivors of that crash, he owed his life to cool-headed actions by the flight attendants, an extraordinary rescue effort on the ground in Sioux City, and mostly, to spectacular flying by four United Airlines pilots.

Disaster came on this day without warning. One hour and seven minutes after takeoff, while cruising at 37,000 feet over rural Iowa, the plane’s tail-mounted engine exploded due to a tiny flaw that had gone undetected in maintenance. Shrapnel severed all three independent hydraulic lines in the DC-10.

The odds of this happening had been calculated at 1 billion to 1, so there were no protocols for it. Moreover, there is simply no way to fly or land that aircraft without the ability to steer or control the flaps -- or reduce the plane’s speed. Yet that is exactly what happened, due to the resourcefulness and bravery of the cockpit crew: Captain Alfred C. Haynes, First Officer William Records, Second Officer Dudley Dvorak, and a deadheading United Airlines flight instructor named Dennis E. Fitch.

When he heard the explosion, Fitch went to the back of the plane to see what had happened, and then made his way to the cockpit to offer his help. It was needed and it was accepted and what happened for the next quarter of an hour made aviation history.

First, the four pilots stabilized the plane by adjusting the thrust on the two remaining engines – giving first one of them the gas, so to speak, and then the other -- thereby creating a makeshift steering system. Fitch took the throttles, but soon realized he could only control the speed so much, and wouldn’t be able to get the plane to less than 250 miles per hour.

This is too fast to land a DC-10, but it was going to have to suffice.

Overseeing all this activity, and communicating with air traffic controllers on the ground, was Captain Haynes. To say he kept his head is an understatement.

“I’ll tell you what, we’ll have a beer when this is all done,” Fitch told him, according to cockpit records.

“Well, I don’t drink,” Haynes replied, “but I’ll sure as hell have one.”

Trained to fly in the U.S. Marine Corps, Haynes kept this attitude up even when told by the Sioux City controllers, “You’re cleared to land on any runway.”

“Roger,” he quipped. “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?”

But the pilot knew the perils, and not just to those aboard his dying aircraft. Earlier in the sequence, he’d instructed Sioux City controllers, “Whatever you do, keep us away from the city.”

Heroism is a word often used too loosely. But not in this case. As the plane came in too hot, the right wing scraped the runway, and the plane began to come apart at the seams. It careened off the runway in pieces, the main body coming to rest in that fateful cornfield, as rescue workers and National Guard troops who happened to be there rushed into the fray, saving as many people as they could.

Captain Haynes would later tell audiences that he had a great deal of luck that day, from the guardsmen on duty to the unusually calm weather in the Iowa skies. But for Joseph Trombello and the many survivors, the luckiest thing of all was that pilots Haynes and Fitch, along with Records and Dvorak, were on board.


Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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