Crash Diary No. 2

Al HaynesPhoto: Stuart Isett/Polaris for New York Magazine

Name: Al Haynes, captain
Flight: United Flight 232, Denver to Chicago
Date: July 19, 1989
Incident: Uncontained engine failure, complete loss of flight controls
Fatalities: 111
Survivors: 185

Our No. 2 engine failed us at 37,000 feet, just as we were being vectored east by Minneapolis air-traffic control. We started to shut down the engine using the standard checklist. But within a few seconds, First Officer Bill Records said, “I can’t control the aircraft.” I turned around and saw that he had the controls all the way to the left and back in his lap, even though the aircraft was in a descending right turn. This was impossible, but he was doing it anyway. We couldn’t figure out why.

I took control, not that I knew what to do. As I was reducing the left throttle, Second Officer Dudley Dvorak advised me that we were losing hydraulics in the other two systems, too. The only way to steer an airplane is with hydraulics, and now we had none at all.

I thought to myself, How are we going to keep this thing in the sky? You don’t train or drill for something like this, because it’s just not supposed to happen. After a little while, we determined that by manipulating the throttles, we could keep the airplane from rolling over, and by alternating the thrust we could try to control the altitude.

Our chances of landing this plane at an airport were not very good. The plan was to keep it flying till we got close to the ground and then just ditch it in a field somewhere. Dudley made an announcement about engine failure, explaining to passengers that it would take us a little longer to get to Chicago. One passenger, a pilot named Denny Fitch, tried to calm a concerned flight attendant, explaining that the DC-10 is designed to be able to fly on only two engines. When she told him we’d lost all the hydraulics, he didn’t believe her—How had we been flying?—but he sent word that he was happy to help.

When he entered the cockpit, we had him take the throttle. Bill and I were both flying by the control wheels, which wasn’t doing any good—but we weren’t sure it wasn’t doing any good, so we weren’t going to stop. Denny stood between Bill and me and started manipulating the throttles at our requests for nose up or nose down, and experimenting with how much power to give us.

We flew like that for 45 minutes, trying to maintain our headings, sometimes drifting off and doing a 360-degree turn to catch the heading on the way back. We were aiming for Sioux City now, and about fifteen minutes before we arrived, I got on the air. “I’m not going to kid you,” I told the passengers. “We’re going to make an emergency landing in Sioux City, not Chicago. It’s going to be a very hard landing, harder than anything you’ve been through. Please pay close attention to the flight attendants’ briefing, and we’ll see you in Sioux City.”

We assumed we’d land flat, hit hard, then bounce. Bill said he’d go on the brakes with me, but of course there were no brakes. Then he said that he’d use the spoilers to slow us down, but there were no spoilers, either. We needed something to absorb the shock, so we all agreed that the landing gear had to go down.

We tried to slow down by tipping the nose back up. Bill said, “Ease the throttles back, we’re going too fast.” Denny said, “I can’t—it makes us turn.” We both said, “Okay, okay,” and that’s the last thing I remember. We didn’t know the wing was going to catch on the ground like it did.

I was knocked out after we hit, and I came to in the crash site. I had no idea what had happened. I didn’t realize that the cockpit had broken off from the rest of the fuselage, or that the caught wing had sent the plane cartwheeling down the runway. I do remember talking to Dudley just before they put me on the ambulance. I asked him if everybody had made it, and he said no.

It was very hard to get past the guilt of surviving. My job had been to get people from point A to point B safely, and I didn’t do it. I felt that I had killed them. I had a lot of psychiatric help at the hospital and afterward. Finally, one psychiatrist said, “You’re not going to find an answer. You just have to accept that it happened.”

Somewhere along the line, this snuck into my thinking and became my way of doing things. Questions like “Why me?” and “What if this had happened?” just don’t do any good. My son was later killed in a motorcycle accident, and if it had been raining, he’d probably have taken a car. My wife of 40 years died suddenly from a very short illness, and she didn’t do anything to deserve a ruptured colon. My daughter had to have a bone-marrow transplant five years ago. These things happen. What something like this teaches you is to accept things and deal with them as best we can.

As told to Jacob Gershman.

Crash Diary No. 2