20 years on: Sioux City, Iowa remembers crash landing that killed 111

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The damaged jet about to land, with damage to areas near the central engine highlighted

Twenty years ago, on July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 crash landed in Sioux City, Iowa, U.S.. 111 of those on board were killed - but the actions of the crew helped save the other 185 flying on the DC-10.

The airliner was a trijet, with one engine mounted in the tail. This engine had a cracked fan disc which went undetected by the airline despite inspections, and on that flight the component failed completely, shattering and sending debris flying. This debris damaged all three hydraulic systems that controlled the aircraft, leaving the jet without any conventional means of control. "We had no ailerons. We had no rudder. We had no elevator. We had no spoilers. We had no wing flaps. Everything that controlled the movement of the airplane we lost," said Captain Alfred C. Haynes.

The pilots were quickly joined by a DC-10 instructor who was traveling as a passenger, and together they improvised a method of 'skid steering' the aircraft. Captain Haynes recalls "[We had] these two engines, and by varying the thrust on those two engines, we could skid the airplane one way or the other. And if you thrust both throttles up at the same time, the increase in thrust would pitch the nose up, and if you closed both throttles it would pitch the nose down."

The flight crew flew the aircraft in this manner for 45 minutes before reaching Sioux Gateway Airport in Iowa's Soiux City. "It looked real good. I thought he was going to make it," said air traffic controller Kevin Bachman of the moments before touchdown. But it wasn't to be: the right wing dropped down and struck the runway, sending the aircraft cartwheeling down the tarmac until it broke up in a fireball.

Everything that controlled the movement of the airplane we lost

—Alfred C. Haynes, Captain, UA232

Haynes was knocked out in the accident, and when he came to he "asked if everybody made it. And [flight engineer] Dudley said no. And I said Oh my God, I killed people." The accident occurred as two nearby hospitals were changing shifts,meaning plenty of emergency personnel were on hand to help with the rescue effort. The National Guard were also in the area.

Haynes has since come to terms with the accident. He does continue to provide lectures on pulling as a team in challenging circumstances. Today his stance upon the praise directed towards him and his crew is that "If you're going to call a hero, you've got to call everyone involved. The hundreds or thousands involved in the whole operation."

A ceremony was held in Sioux City to mark the anniversary. Former 185th Air National Guard chaplain and doctor Dr. Gregory Clapper, who counseled victims and rescuers alike, commented that "Humans are historical beings. When we suffer a loss, the date of the loss becomes so significant. Although it may not be objectively important to others, taking note of that date may be beneficial for those who suffered the loss," he said at the event in Chris Larsen Park.

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation resulted in new procedures for the way airlines inspect their aircraft in the U.S. However modest Haynes and his fellow crew members may be, the fact remains that twenty years on their achievements remain recognized as one of the world's most remarkable displays of airmanship in the face of the odds.

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