As a Little League umpire in the Seattle area, Al Haynes surely has had a few disputed calls. However, no one could knock the United Airlines pilot’s cool decisions aboard the disabled Denver-to-Chicago DC-10 that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19. Although the 58-year-old captain of Flight 232 would later insist he was only doing his job, his performance was an odds-defying feat of calming grace under extreme pressure. For 41 minutes, after the plane blew out its tail engine and lost hydraulic pressure controlling the wing flaps, elevators, ailerons and rudder, Haynes and his crew guided the crippled aircraft to the Sioux Gateway Airport, maneuvering only by jockeying the throttles of the two remaining engines. (McDonnell Douglas, which builds the DC-10, and United simulated 45 flights under the same conditions, and not one had a successful landing.)
Aided by his first and second officers and an off-duty United pilot who was aboard as a passenger, Haynes spiraled the plane down from 33,000 feet in giant, right-turning arcs in a desperate attempt to achieve a level approach to the runway. Ten seconds short of touchdown, as passengers braced for an emergency landing, the right wing dipped, caught the ground and sent the plane somersaulting across the asphalt, breaking into large fiery sections and sending parts of the fuselage hurtling into a cornfield. Of the 296 persons aboard, 186 survived, including the cockpit crew. “There is no hero,” Haynes said with characteristic modesty “just a group of people, four people who did their jobs.”
On Oct. 31, Haynes climbed into the cockpit of another DC-10, his first working flight since the accident. “It’s time to get back, “said the captain, with wife Darlene, 56, and daughter Laurie, 25, on hand. Two months earlier the National Transportation Safety Board had issued a 165-page report on the flight of United 232. The following is a distillation of recorded transmissions between the cockpit and the tower during those fateful 41 minutes.
Crew This is United 232. We blew No. 2 engine and we’ve lost all hydraulics and we are only able to control level flight with asymmetrical [engine thrust] power….
Haynes: We don’t have any controls.
Crew: Don’t pull the throttles off…
Haynes: Start forward.
Crew: Come on, baby, come on, baby…
Haynes: We’re not gonna make the runway, fellas. We’re gonna have to ditch this son of a bitch and hope for the best….Pull back, pull back. Start it down. No, no, no, no, no, not yet. Wait a minute till it levels off.
Crew; We’re gonna have to land somewhere out here, probably in a field.
Haynes: How they doin’ on the evacuation?
Flight attendant: They’re puttin’ things away, but they’re not in any big hurry.
Haynes: Well, they better hurry. We’re gonna have to ditch, I think….Sioux City, United 232.
Sioux Gateway control tower: Sioux City.
Haynes: Sir, we have no hydraulic fluid. I have serious doubts about making the airport. Have you got someplace near we might be able to ditch?
Crew: Gotta put some flaps [down] and see if that’ll help.
Haynes: The hell, let’s do it—we can’t get any worse than we are—and spin in.
Sioux City: United 232, understand you’re gonna try to make it into Sioux City.
Crew: Is this Sioux City down to the right?
Haynes: That’s Sioux City…. See if you can keep us with the throttles in a 10-to 15-degree turn.
Crew: All right, I’ll play ’em, I’ll play ’em….
Off-duty pilot: Hi, Al. Denny Fitch.
Haynes: How do you do, Denny.
Fitch: I’ll tell you what. We’ll have a beer when this is all done.
Haynes: Well, I don’t drink, but I’ll sure as——have one….We almost have no control of the airplane….It’s gonna be tough…gonna be rough.
Flight attendant: So we’ re gonna evacuate?
Haynes: if we can keep the airplane on the ground and stop, standing up, give us a second or two before you evacuate….Brace will be the signal. It’ll be over the PA system: Brace, brace, brace!
Flight attendant: And that will be to evacuate?
Haynes; No, that’ll be to brace for the landing. But I really have my doubts you’ll see us…standing up, honey. Good luck, sweetheart.
Sioux City: United 232, you’re currently 33 miles northeast.
Haynes: We don’t have any brakes.
Crew: Ho brakes?
Haynes: Well, we have some brakes….
Sioux City: United 232, your present heading looks good.
Haynes: We’ll see how close we can come to holding it….Right turns are no problem, just left turns.
Sioux City: You’re gonna have to widen out just slightly to your left, sir, to make the turn to final and also take you away from the city.
Haynes: Whatever you do, keep us away from the city.
Crew: Keep turning, Al, keep turning right.
Haynes: You got to level this sucker off….I want to get as close to the airport as we can….
Crew: We have four minutes to touchdown….
Haynes: Won’t this be a fun landing….Ease it down…right there.
Crew: Oh, baby.
Haynes: We have the runway in sight.
Sioux City: At the end of the runway, it’s just wide open field.
Crew; Left throttle, left, left, left, left…
[Sound of impact.]