Some people are born great, some people achieve greatness and some people have greatness thrust upon them.
- William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
No one can argue that on July 19, 1989, greatness was thrust upon United Airlines Captain Alfred C. Haynes and United flight instructor Dennis E. Fitch.
On that fateful day, United Airlines Flight 232 bound for Philadelphia from Denver was in a shallow right turn at 37,000 feet when the fan disk of its engine broke up in flight, destroying all three of the aircraft’s hydraulic systems - an event so improbable the odds have been calculated at a billion to one.
Almost immediately, Captain Haynes and the crew realized that with no hydraulic pressure, there would be no conventional means of safely controlling the aircraft. As a result, the plane continually veered to the right, making it difficult to maintain a stable course.
Fitch, who was a passenger on the flight, came to the cockpit to offer his assistance. Over the next 41 minutes, Haynes and Fitch crudely steered the big jet by varying the power of the remaining two engines, a procedure few pilots have ever practiced at cruising altitude and virtually none have used to land a plane. They finally made a crash landing at the airport in Sioux City.
Upon descent, the right wing was sheared off when the aircraft came in contact with the runway. The plane skidded to the right, ignited and somersaulted. However, it was a miracle that they were able to align the jumbo jet with the runway in the first place by using only the engines to steer the plane.
While 111 passengers died tragically in the crash, a large percentage of those aboard the jumbo jet survived what should have been a “non-survivable accident,” because of the heroic actions of Haynes and Fitch.
To this day, in subsequent reconstructions of the accident in flight simulators, pilots have yet to succeed in reproducing Haynes’ and Fitch’s achievement of maneuvering an aircraft from mid air to runway without losing control.