Twenty-five years ago this week — July 19, 1989 — United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago experienced extreme mechanical malfunction while at a cruising height of 37,000 feet. Its cockpit crew made a heroic effort to bring the DC-10 under control but was forced to make a crash landing at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa. The immense aircraft hit the ground at more than twice the normal landing speed, careened across grass and concrete, and exploded in flames. Astonishingly, of the 296 people aboard, 184 survived. What could have been one of the worst air disasters in history instead became something more unusual, a terrible event — after all, 112 people died, many of them children — that also contained elements of the miraculous.
Laurence Gonzales, a skillful reporter whose previous books include “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” (2004), “Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things” (2008) and “Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience” (2012), has written in “Flight 232” what will surely stand as the definitive account of this catastrophe. The story has been extensively covered in the media, but “Flight 232” stands alone: for its absolutely riveting depiction of the flight’s last minutes and the horrendous aftermath; for its vivid and sympathetic portraits of many of those aboard the plane, the crew most particularly; and for its meticulous inquiry into the mechanical failure — “a microscopic flaw in the flywheel of the engine,” in the words of one witness — that doomed it.
The DC-10 has been out of service in the United States for seven years, and there probably are not many people outside the offices of its manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, who mourn its departure. It was, as one of the survivors of Flight 232 said, “such a beautiful plane,” but there were “deep flaws” in its design, so much so that “in the 1970s a number of airline captains stepped down from flying the DC-10,” taking pay cuts rather than fly an airliner they did not trust. In the case of the plane that went down outside Sioux City, the flaw lay in the General Electric engine located in its immense tail. There was a minuscule crack in the fan disk of that engine that went undetected during routine United maintenance. It had been steadily growing over the many trips made by the plane and finally gave way over Iowa on July 19, 1989. The engine burst — the explosion was clearly heard inside the plane — and debris severed the hydraulic lines connecting the steering mechanism to controls in the cockpit.
Captain Alfred Haynes and his crew simply could not steer the plane. They were joined in the cockpit by Dennis Fitch, a United DC-10 training expert who happened to be on board. Together they managed to maneuver the plane by tweaking the two engines under its wings, but the plane could turn only to the right, so maneuverability was drastically limited. That they actually managed to get the plane to Sioux City and to bring it down with a genuine chance of a safe, if bone-crunching, landing was nothing short of a miracle; they “had done something considered impossible by all the engineers that McDonnell Douglas and United Airlines could assemble: they had brought a plane home without using any of the conventional flight controls.” As a federal investigator later put it: “The flyers in the cockpit became instant test pilots when the center engine let loose. They were line pilots with no training on a total hydraulic failure situation. Period. They are heroes in every sense of the word.” (An account by Haynes can be found at yarchive.net/air/airliners/
dc10_sioux_city.html. It is an excellent supplement to this fine book.)
Back in the cabin, reactions ranged from utter terror to calm determination. The head flight attendant, Jan Brown, was as heroic in her instructions to the passengers and in the model she set for them as were the four men trying to control the plane in the cockpit, and other members of the crew who served under her were similarly cool-headed and brave. There were more than 50 children on board, some of them flying unescorted and some of them in adults’ laps rather than seats of their own. Though Brown and her fellow attendants instructed people to put small children under their seats and to shield them with pillows, a number of children died in the crash because they were inadequately protected.
Though most of those on board were terrified, especially after Haynes told them what was happening, Gonzales does not record any instances of outright cowardice or selfish disregard for the fate of others. One passenger died while shielding the young boy in the seat next to him — the boy survived — and others helped fellow passengers escape from the sections of the shattered plane in which they were trapped. Not surprisingly, many of those who managed to find themselves alive on firm Iowa ground were disoriented (some thought at first they were in heaven) and stunned.
A good deal of luck was involved in the improbable outcome of the crash, not least of it involving the place where the DC-10 happened to go down. Gary Brown, the resourceful director of Woodbury County Disaster and Emergency Services, had “managed to stage a full-scale exercise on the airfield in the fall of 1987, simulating a plane crash with scores of people injured,” with the result that the people who rushed to the airport knew what they were doing. It helped, too, that the crashhappened near Sioux City. One resident told Gonzales: “Sioux City is a town that’s been plagued by floods throughout its history, and the town has always pulled together. It’s like an Irish family. They fight like hell among themselves. They want nothing to do with each other. But you throw a disaster at them, and they’re all shoulder to shoulder and they’ll do whatever it takes. They don’t stop for one minute to think what their personal cost or toll is going to be in it, they just do it.”
Local residents helping the injured were promptly joined by others who went about trying to identify those among the dead who were beyond recognition or had no identification on them. These included a prominent practitioner of forensic dentistry who insisted on cutting out the jaws of the dead: “The fact that dentists removed the jaws of perfectly intact and viewable victims gave forensic dentistry a bad name for a number of years after that crash.” Generally, though, the dead were treated with respect, a matter of no small comfort to their families.
Investigators from the various federal agencies involved with aviation safety descended on Sioux City, as did others from companies likely to come under investigation. At first representatives of United Airlines tried clumsy attempts at damage control, infuriating Gary Brown, but after he exploded at them in anger they backed off and cooperated. General Electric and McDonnell Douglas were similarly worried about corporate image, but they too cooperated. In the end, Gonzales’s judgment is clear: “Even though GE failed to produce a perfect engine, and even though United failed to execute its maintenance perfectly, it was the failure of McDonnell Douglas to shield the hydraulic lines . . . that brought [the plane] down.”
There are any number of points to be made about the crash of Flight 232, one of which is “the presence of incipient calamity in our midst.” As Gonzales says, “The forces of chaos are always there and can manifest themselves at any moment, from out of the clouds, unannounced.” He also points out that though air travel is always at the mercy of the incredibly complex and imperfect machines that make it possible, it is also incredibly safe. This is not a plug for the airline industry but a simple statement of fact. You may read “Flight 232” with a shudder — I certainly did — but it shouldn’t scare you out of taking to the skies again.
A Story of Disaster and Survival
By Laurence Gonzales
Norton. 415 pp. $27.95