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Flight DC-10: chronicle of a plane crash
Flight DC-10: chronicle of a plane crash

In 1989, in the skies over the state of Iowa, a heroic battle of the crew of the DC-10 airliner for the lives of passengers unfolded: the pilots still managed to bring the damaged plane to the ground.

Chronicle of a plane crash: how to save passengers

Widebody DC-10 aircraft took to the skies in the early 1970s. The maximum carrying capacity of these heavyweights was 380 passengers. On July 19, 1989, during flight 232 Denver-Chicago, there were 296 people on board, including the crew.

“Everything went flawlessly,” the captain of the liner Alfred Haynes will tell many years later. - But suddenly we heard a roar, as from an explosion. Then I thought it was a bomb.” The DC-10 tilted sharply to the right. It shook desperately, the tail sagged, and the plane sharply gained an extra hundred meters in height. Flight Engineer Dudley Dvorak immediately sent a radiogram to the control center in Minneapolis: “We've just lost our second engine. Please, tell me how you can drop the altitude."

Flight 232

While co-pilot William Records was struggling with the helm, Haynes asked Dvorak to look at the instructions and see how he could turn off the flabby engine - the one that is located right in the keel. The first item on the list of operations was the instruction to reset the throttle, but the throttle stick refused to return to its place.

“This was the first signal for us that the problem was much more serious than a simple engine failure,” Haynes later said. The second point was to turn off the fuel supply to the damaged engine. However, "the crane that cuts off the fuel line bent, but did not move."

Less than a minute after the explosion, Records said to the captain: "Al, the plane is not listening." DC began to decline, gradually tipping to the right, and then the captain himself took the helm. “When the roll reached 38 degrees and the liner was about to flip upside down,” Haynes will tell later, “we threw off the throttle on the left engine (No. 1) and increased on the right (No. 3)." By shifting all the thrust to the right side, Haynes made sure that the DC-10 began to pick up to the left. The air flowing around the right wing began to move faster, and there was a slight increase in lift.

Meanwhile, Dvorak, who was closely monitoring the instruments, was horrified to see that the pressure in the hydraulic systems of all three engines had dropped to zero.

Flight 232

Experienced gaze

Another person joined the rescue of the plane at that time - Dennis Fitch, an instructor pilot from Denver, who was on this flight as a passenger, trained his cadets to fly the DC-10. Then Captain Haynes said that Fitch just looked at the panel with one eye, and everything became clear to him.

Immediately after the explosion, the plane described one large loop with a diameter of thirty kilometers, taking all the time to the right. Further, gradually decreasing, he cut a few more smaller circles - 10-15 km. The DC-10 flew as a paper airplane plans when launched from a high altitude. It would bite with its nose, then pull it up, then bite it again … So they flew, and each cycle took about a minute, and each time the plane leveled itself out, noticeably losing altitude. All this time, the pilots tried to somehow restrain the stall on the right wing and the scope of the next nods.

Flight 232

In an effort to predict the behavior of the aircraft, they gradually and in fact "entered the rhythm with the vibrations of their car." Fitch saw that things were getting better somehow, but he, an experienced instructor, understood perfectly well that in 25 years of operating airliners of this scale, the crew had never been able to save an aircraft with a complete failure of the control drives. Now they were just delaying the moment of disaster.

Strikethrough stripe

At 3:46 p.m., under Fitch's direction, the crew made the first and only left turn, since the damaged plane had previously taken only right and right.After 20 minutes of practice, the instructor already understood how the plane reacts to manipulations with the engine control levers (throttle levers), and this time he performed brilliantly, showing everything he was capable of.

This rescue maneuver turned the plane to the southwest, directly into Sioux City, and the flight was still high enough to reach the nearest runway. However, it was at the beginning of this strip that a yellow letter "X" was inscribed in its entire width. She reminded the pilots that this ancient strip, preserved from the Second World War, is no longer maintained by anyone.

Flight 232

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 was airborne about an hour from Denver, heading for Chicago. In flight, its tail engine exploded, and the explosion damaged three hydraulic systems, which should rotate the corresponding aerodynamic surfaces of the wing and stabilizer when controlling the aircraft. Describing wide circles, the practically uncontrollable plane began to descend.

A yellow "X" painted at the entrance to the 22nd Sioux City airport, warned pilots that the use of this runway, built during the Second World War, has been discontinued forever. The right wing and right landing gear of side 232 hit concrete at a speed of about 400 km / h. About 5 tons of aviation kerosene spilled out of the broken wing. A ball of fire erupted in the air, which spread to the crashed plane.

After informing the passengers of the ten-minute readiness, Haynes discussed with colleagues how to extend the landing gear if the hydraulics are faulty. We decided to follow the instructions for emergencies and start manually extending the chassis using the winches hidden under the floor.

Until this moment, Fitch had always stood behind the pilots, but if he had not sat down in any chair at the time of landing, he would have had no chance of surviving. Dvorak offered Fitch his seat - from there the instructor could control the engines until the last minute of the flight. Dvorak himself buckled into the folding seat behind Haynes and announced to the passengers: “There are four minutes left before contact with the ground. Before the blow - four minutes."

The last time the pilots carefully aligned the plane, at that very moment Haynes saw a picture in front of him that had brought him peace and satisfaction for decades. The sight of the strip in front of you is a feast for any pilot. It was the promise of a safe landing. A little more, and everyone will be at home.



3:14 pm. At 11,300m above Iowa, the aircraft begins a smooth left turn to head for Chicago.

3:16 The engine aft explodes. Titanium shards, like shrapnel, damage the hydraulic line leading to the stabilizer.

3:18 From the hydraulic line, all the working fluid flows out, and the crew is deprived of the opportunity to manipulate the control planes. The DC-10 aircraft slips sharply to the right. The captain of the ship Haynes guesses that by adding thrust on the right engine and decreasing on the left, it is possible - at least to some extent - to control the flight of the damaged aircraft.

3:26 At an altitude of 7,900 m, the plane traces a circle with a diameter of about 30 km. This was the first cycle in a rightward spiral of descent. The plane was pulling to the right all the time, because the right side of the engine nacelle located in the tail was especially badly damaged. It provided additional aerodynamic drag and acted like a rudder blade turned to the side.

3:29 At an altitude of 6600 m, the liner enters the beginning of the second loop.

3:31 AM Dennis Fitch, an instructor who taught the crews to fly the DC-10 and accidentally found himself on board, takes part in the control and takes over the work with the throttle rods, maintaining level flight.

3:45 At an altitude of 2800 m, the crew begins the first left turn since the accident.

3:49 At 2100 m, the crew manually opens the hatches leading to the landing gear and lowers the landing gear to the operating position using hand winches.

3:52 At just 1 km, the plane makes another full turn and, after completing the loop, is at the altitude needed to land at Sioux City airport. The plane descends at 360 meters per minute, which is three times faster than the speed that the DC-10 chassis could withstand.

4:00 Approaching runway 22, the plane is flying at a speed of about 400 km / h - this speed is twice the norm. At less than 30m, Fitch tries to throttle both engines. As a result, the left engine spins up to 96% of the rated power, while the power on the right drops to 66%. The plane rolls to the right with a roll of 20 degrees. The wingtips cling to the runway and the plane begins to collapse. The middle part of the fuselage is engulfed in flames and smoke.

Hundreds of eyes followed the flight - it was all the controllers crowded in the air traffic control tower, and the crowd of firefighters, police officers, National Guard soldiers. The huge winged figure of an air heavyweight did not float through the air, as it is deceptively seen when large airliners come in for landing, but rushed swiftly along the landing glide path, falling almost like a stone.

When Fitch pointed the plane clearly to runway 22, he literally felt with his back that there are now 160 tons of metal and human flesh behind him, and all this inexorably rushes forward at a speed of 400 km / h. “However,” Fitch would say later, “there was one consolation. The strip ended with an exit straight into an endless field sown with corn. " On the ground, board 232 was waiting for a green friendly cornfield - beautiful as it is at the height of summer.

Fiery carousel

At an altitude of about 100 m, Haynes wondered if the tires would hold up when hitting the runway. According to the rules, the plane must land at half the speed. Haynes told Fitch to dump the gas completely. Then Fitch said that he was going to close the throttle right at the moment of touching the ground, but, looking at the variometer, he saw that the rate of descent was 540 m per minute, and this promises a hit to the ground, which is three times greater than the capabilities of the chassis. "So I also thought it right to completely shut off both engines."

For some reason, the left engine immediately spun up to almost 96% of its power, while the right one dropped the speed only to 66%. It is quite possible that Fitch did everything right, and both thrusters shifted in sync, but the engines responded to the command in their own way. The relationship between throttle position and engine thrust is by no means linear. Be that as it may, the right roll of two degrees immediately reached twenty. This happened quickly, and already at a very low altitude. The right wing console went down and after a fraction of a second scraped along the runway. At the same time, the right landing gear began to plow the ancient concrete, leaving a 45 cm deep furrow in it.

Flight 232

At the same moment when the plane crashed onto the runway, five tons of kerosene spilled out from the damaged wing, which hung in a cloud with an explosive fog. Engine # 2 flew out of its mountings, the tail of the plane fell off and rolled to the side. The only remaining engine (left) continued to run at full power.

“It made the plane spin like a toy propeller, and it was impossible to stop it with the mad thrust of this engine,” Fitch said. - After the tail came off, the center of gravity shifted forward, the plane began to swing like a swing, and then rested its nose directly on the ground and began to draw on it, bouncing like a ball. At the first such jump, I saw at some point that the world behind the windshield darkened sharply.

Then the whole field of view turned green. Nevertheless, we were still one with the rest of the plane. However, the plane could not withstand the second such blow, and the cockpit flew off like the tip of a ballpoint pen."

Meanwhile, due to the lift still acting on the left wing console, and from the thrust of the still working left engine, the airliner turned a full 360 degrees. From somewhere in the middle of the fuselage, a ball of fire erupted with clouds of smoke. Rows of seats were seen tumbling out of the plane, tumbling over the flames.

Some of them took off over the fire in long parabolic trajectories, as if fired from a catapult. It was the action of centrifugal force from the rear of the fuselage spinning in the flame. Just think of what it was like for the surviving passengers to feel like they were flying and fully conscious over a storm of fire and looking down at the green field spread out around them. All this madness ended when the plane rolled over again and finally lay motionless on its back …


Flight 232 carried 296 passengers. 185 of them were saved. Seven of the eight flight attendants survived. All three of the smashed cockpit survived, and with them instructor Fitch. The National Transportation Safety Commission reported that the cause of the accident was a rupture of a first stage titanium turbine on engine # 2.

Jim Walker, pilot of the 185th Iowa Air Force Tactical Fighter Group), immediately concluded that no one should be left alive in such a crash. However, another of the guards pilots, Norm Frank, pulled up abruptly in his pickup truck next to his colleague and said: "Get in, let's try to look, maybe someone survived after all." Walker got into the pickup and they drove onto the tarmac.

The whole field was littered with corpses. "And we just sat and looked at all these dead," - said Walker. Most of the bodies lay on the grassy shoulder between the concrete strip and the cornfield. “And then completely unreal things began. I have never seen anything like this in my life. It all looked like footage from the movie "Night of the Living Dead". Many of these "dead" suddenly moved and sat down on the grass. " Walker was amazed to see a man in a business suit get to his feet, looking around as if he had lost something. As the pilot from the National Guard later said, "the man took a few steps, picked up his luggage and walked away."

Meanwhile, in the glazed tower on all sides, dispatcher Charles Owings broke the silence by picking up a microphone and announcing by radio to all aircraft in the area that Sioux City Gateway Airport was officially closed for reception.

This article is excerpted from Flight 232 - A Narrative of Disaster and the Struggle for Life by Lawrence Gonzales, W. W. Norton & Company.

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