30 years ago, Captain Haynes managed to perform the impossible, by landing a DC-10 from Denver to Chicago that had lost all hydraulic power. Previously it was thought to be impossible to land a plane without hydraulic controls and have any survivors as hydraulic systems on a plane control just about everything needed to control the aircraft.
The odds of losing all hydraulic power had been calculated as 1 in a billion and manuals at the time had no procedures about how to land safely in case of the loss of all hydraulic power. Haynes managed to miraculously save 185 of the 296 passengers on his plane.
The book, Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival tells the dramatic story.
DC-10 instructor Denny Fitch, who passed away 7 years ago after battling brain cancer, just happened to board the flight as he inexplicably walked past an alternate United flight on a Boeing 727 from Denver to Chicago that departed 5 minutes prior to flight 232.
He was fascinated with the possibility of a flight losing all hydraulics and previously tested his theory on controlling a plane via differential thrust alone in a simulator. Captain Haynes graciously accepted his help in the cockpit and it likely saved their lives. It’s considered one of the finest examples of teamwork in aviation history.
In 28 landing attempts that were done afterward in a simulator by other experts replicating flight 232, zero were successful at even reaching the airport.
Denny is a master story teller and his telling of the landing of United flight 232 disaster brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. It’s nearly an hour long and the editing isn’t great, but it’s well worth the watch:
Air Traffic Control recordings show how the crew kept calm and their sense of humor under pressure. Here is the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder.
- Denny Fitch: “I’ll tell you what, we’ll have a beer when this is all done.”
- Al Haynes: “Well I don’t drink, but I’ll sure as hell have one.”
- Sioux City Approach: “United Two Thirty-Two Heavy, the wind’s currently three six zero at one one three sixty at eleven. You’re cleared to land on any runway…”
- Al Haynes: “[Laughter] Roger. [Laughter] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?”
But Haynes main objective was to not cause further harm as interstate highways were offered by Sioux City Approach if they couldn’t make the airport.
- Al Haynes: “Whatever you do, keep us away from the city.”
The WSJ has a great article on Al’s humility and how humility isn’t a a byproduct of heroism in a life-or-death crisis, but a precondition.
It’s pretty amazing from watching the video of the landing that there were 185 survivors:
Without the ability to raise the dipping right wing or to apply brakes, the plane split apart into 4 pieces upon landing. The cockpit wasn’t even found until 35 minutes after the crash.
The seat map diagram shows where on the plane people were sitting and whether they survived or were injured:
In the end, GE and United maintenance were blamed for not finding the metal fatigue that caused all of the hydraulic lines to be cut and the loss of all hydraulic fluid and power. Changes to maintenance and the hydraulic systems were implemented after the crash.
United flight 232 lead flight attendant Jan Brown went on to become a tireless child safety advocate. At the time, guidance was for lap children to be placed on the ground in case of a crash landing.
Jan told Sylvia Tsao to do just that with her 22 month old boy on the flight. Sylvia survived, but her son Evan did not. Sylvia confronted Jan after the crash and told her, “You told me to put my son on the floor, I did, and he’s gone.”
Jan has spent years lobbying the NTSB and FAA to require carseats for all children on airplanes. At one point in time, the NTSB considered it one of their top priorities. However the FAA estimated that 20% of families would drive instead of fly if they required that infants be ticketed, so they refused to adopt the rule.
However the FAA does state that, “Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially during unexpected turbulence. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly urges you to secure your child in a CRS or device for the duration of your flight. It’s the smart and right thing to do so that everyone in your family arrives safely at your destination.”
Of course a carseat doesn’t only protect your child from a crash landing. It also protects children from clear-air turbulence that can cause injury. A bassinet or your arms won’t do that.
Aside from the safety aspect, young children in a carseat are more likely to sleep on a plane and you won’t have to hold them or stop them from opening the airline seatbelt. Plus if you need a carseat at your destination you don’t have to worry about airline baggage handlers mishandling and damaging your carseat.
United Flight 232 was turned into a play, here is the actress that plays Jan, together with Jan:
Jan and I have been corresponding regularly and have become friends since I flew with my family to Israel last year in United Polaris business class. She cares deeply about child safety on planes. I wrote an article last year about my research and experience with carseats in United Polaris business class.
Let’s just say that Jan is no fan of the FAA and she’s livid at United’s carseat restrictions. She rattles off many other instances of parents who were not able to hold onto their lap children and wound up paying the ultimate price due to the FAA’s failure to requite seats for everyone. She is very frustrated to hear that flight attendants would advise anyone to hold their infant instead of using a carseat.
While direct aisle access in business class has been great for adult travelers, it hasn’t been good for young children. Most airlines have banned carseats in business class as the FAA says that they haven’t tested the effectiveness of carseats on angled seats.
It’s absurd that after years of angled business class seats that the FAA still hasn’t tested how carseats perform in angled seats.
However half of United’s Polaris business seats face straight forward, but United still banned carseats in all Polaris seats. This is against FAA rules that require airlines to allow carseats to be used in all seats that can accommodate them.
Just mentioning Jan’s name to a United flight attendant has worked wonders for us though. Jan says that she never lived down the fact that she followed the manual in advising parents to put their lap children on the floor. United flight attendants today revere Jan and stop to think if it really makes sense to not allow infants in a car seat in a forward facing seat, just because the manual says not to:
We flew in United Polaris last year to Israel and this year to Israel and Hawaii and are 6 for 6 in using a carseat for our infant.
Things are typically better in coach, though airlines are adding airbag seatbelt in some seats, which are problematic with carseats.
Foreign carriers can be particularly bad about allowing carseats on a plane. It’s a shame that 30 years after United flight 232 that things are still as difficult as they are for child safety on a plane.
The next time you’re buying a flight with an infant, I hope you’ll consider buying your child a seat and bringing a carseat on the plane. It’s a small price to pay for knowing that your child will be safe!
Do you bring a carseat on the plane for your infants and toddlers?