• U.S.

Brace! Brace! Brace!

11 minute read
Ed Magnuson

What if a less skilled captain had been at the controls of that jumbo jet, struggling under emergency conditions that no pilot had ever faced? Or if an off-duty airline pilot, who happened to be on board, had not rushed to the cockpit to assist him? Or if the 181-ft.-long aircraft had ripped apart in even a slightly different way? Or if that Sioux City cornfield had been drought baked and hard instead of rain soaked and soft?

It took a unique combination of fate and circumstance last week to produce a near miracle of survival in the midst of a horrible tragedy. When a stricken United Airlines DC-10 failed by seconds to achieve a level emergency landing and plowed into the earth only yards short of a runway at Sioux Gateway Airport, 110 passengers and crew members died, the tenth highest airplane toll in U.S. history. But, astonishingly, 186 lived through the crash and its fiery aftermath. Some even walked away. Never before had selecting a seat been such a fateful decision. Almost every passenger in the plane’s 32-seat first-class compartment was killed. Virtually all the 117 travelers in an economy-class section behind them survived.

Nothing seemed amiss when Captain Alfred Haynes, 59, a 33-year United Airlines veteran, lifted the three-engine DC-10 into sunny skies over Denver for a two-hour flight to Chicago. The airliner, configured to hold 287 passengers, had only five vacant seats. Since United had designated July as “picnic month,” the eight flight attendants served mini-baskets of chicken sticks, crackers and cheese.

But at 3:16 p.m. (central daylight time), as the DC-10 cruised at 33,000 ft. above the tiny town of Alta, Iowa (pop. 1,720), it was jolted. Passengers heard an explosion at the plane’s rear, then felt the huge craft shake and pitch downward. In Row 11 of the economy section in front of the wings, Lori Michaelson was traveling with her husband and three children. “I could see the stewardesses looked kind of panicky,” she recalled later. That was understandable. One of them had been knocked to the floor.

Then came a calming voice from the flight deck. “We have lost the No. 2 engine,” it announced. “We will be a little late arriving in Chicago.” Engine No. 2 sits high on the tail and is identical to the two turbofan jets under the wings. Any one of the three engines is capable of powering the plane in an emergency. As the aircraft seemed to steady, passengers relaxed, turning back to their books or drinks.

In the cockpit, however, Haynes was describing a far more dangerous situation to regional air-traffic controllers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. One minute after the explosion, he radioed that his craft had developed “complete hydraulic failure.” That meant the crew could no longer control the rudder, elevators, wing flaps and ailerons that steer the jet. Too massive to be manually manipulated, these control surfaces are normally powered by fluid pumped by pressure from the jet engines through a series of stainless-steel tubes that snake throughout the aircraft. Since each of the plane’s three redundant hydraulic systems is powered by a separate engine, the loss of power from the No. 2 engine should have left two of them intact. No complete failure had ever been reported.

Responding to Haynes’ distress call, air controllers directed the plane to continue eastward for an emergency landing at Dubuque, Iowa, 240 miles away. The pilot sensed a momentary regaining of some control. But then he lost it again. At 3:20 he declared that he faced an “emergency” and had to find the nearest landing spot. Controllers suggested he turn back to the west to reach Sioux City, a Missouri River town where one of the airport’s runways is 9,000 ft. long. That could easily handle a DC-10. But Sioux City was 70 miles away.

Back in the passenger areas, the mood remained relaxed. Some travelers noticed the wide turn to the southwest and heard the thrust in the two wing engines change, alternately increasing and decreasing. Haynes was apparently relying on a technique that pilots call “porpoising,” adjusting the thrust of his two remaining engines in a desperate effort to control the plane. Passenger Kathleen Batson joked that the engine problem would get them priority-landing rights in Chicago. “We won’t be circling O’Hare,” she quipped.

But far below, near Alta, 60 miles from Sioux City, workers in a seed-corn company’s research field returned from a lunch break to a startling discovery. In the midst of the corn stood a cone-shaped piece of wreckage, 12 ft. long and 8 ft. high. On one scrap, an inscription clearly read ENG. 2. Some five miles away, other pieces, including sections of the multiple blades of a turbofan engine, were found.

Something unprecedented had happened. Not only had the plane’s tail engine lost its cone, but its fan had literally shattered. The disintegrating engine somehow flung shrapnel-like chunks of hot metal past the chamber designed to contain any such breakup. The pieces apparently ripped into all three hydraulic lines that converge at the tail, killing or at least vastly reducing hydraulic pressure.

As the aircraft rolled drunkenly from side to side, off-duty United Captain Dennis Fitch rushed to the cockpit to help Haynes and First Officer William Records, getting down on his knees to gingerly manipulate the throttles. Second Officer Dudley Dvorak walked to the back of the plane, trying to assess the damage. Haynes told controllers he could only make wide turns to the right and was worried about whether he could reach the airport. Alerted to the emergency, the tower at Sioux City informed local police and rescue units to prepare for either a crash landing on the runway or one on nearby Highway 20.

Rescue agencies in Sioux City and surrounding Woodbury County had run through a drill two years ago in which a large plane was assumed to have crashed at the airport and 150 survivors needed immediate help. Even before Flight 232 was in sight, Dr. David Greco, heading the medical disaster teams, was hovering in a helicopter. A dozen ambulances and four other choppers were ready to speed survivors to the two local hospitals, and police, fire and National Guard units were rushing to assist.

By then Haynes had managed to guide his disabled craft toward Sioux City in a wide descending spiral of right turns. “We’re going to make an emergency landing in Sioux City,” he warned passengers over the intercom. “It’s going to be rough.” He paused. “As a matter of fact, it’s going to be more than rough.”

While passengers studied emergency landing cards, flight attendants demonstrated the emergency “brace” position: heads down, hands grasping ankles. Some passengers sought diversion from the gathering tension. Steve Willuweit, 46, seated in Row 16, went back to reading an Arthur C. Clarke science-fiction novel: “I didn’t want to think about anything except getting up and walking off the plane.” Lori Michaelson was instructed to place her year-old baby Sabrina on the floor near her seat.

Haynes radioed the tower that he thought he could reach the airport. But he was unable to line up the plane for a landing on Runway 31 (on a northwest bearing of 310 degrees), where most of the emergency crews were waiting. He told the tower that he would aim instead for Runway 22 (southwest at 220 degrees), which was 6,880 ft. long — just enough to handle a DC-10 under normal circumstances. When the jet appeared headed toward Runway 22 on a surprisingly level and steady approach, anxious ground observers were elated. Haynes radioed the tower, “I think I’m going to make it.”

At 3:53 p.m. the voice on the intercom shouted, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” Four minutes later, some ten seconds short of the runway, the DC-10’s right wing dipped, slicing into the dirt to the left of the asphalt. The plane plowed into the ground and flipped over twice before finally landing on its back. In a cloud of dirt, smoke and flying metal, the plane broke into ever smaller pieces as parts of its fuselage hurtled across the runway and into a cornfield.

Only three sections came to rest intact enough to be recognizable: the nose and flight deck; a passenger area, containing Rows 9 to 19, that had been attached to the now severed wings; the tail, including a few rear seats. As rescue crews swung into action, they were startled by the sight of passengers emerging from the smoking rubble and walking away from the wreck into the field of 7-ft.-tall corn.

The survivors could scarcely contain their stunned amazement at being alive. “The plane bounced twice, flipped into the air, and we wound up sitting there upside down as the cabin began to fill with smoke,” recalled Cliff Marshall, of Ostrander, Ohio. “God opened a hole, and I pushed a little girl out.” Sister Viannea, a Felician nun, said the crash “was like a cyclone. Everything was flying all over the plane. I could feel people walking over me to get out. Finally, three men dragged me out.”

The smoke and fire were heavy at one end of this upside-down cabin section, but the breakup opened a wide escape avenue at the other end. “I looked for where the emergency exit used to be,” said David Landsberger, a New Jersey businessman who had been in Seat 13B. “But it wasn’t there. Then I looked toward the front of the plane, and I saw daylight. Then I saw green stuff beyond the mud, and when I got out I found myself in a cornfield.”

Two rows ahead of Landsberger, Mark Michaelson and his wife Lori unbuckled their seat belts and dropped to what is normally the ceiling of the DC-10. Separately, they hustled two of their three children out of the wreckage. But each thought the other had baby Sabrina. The father ran back to the fuselage. “I could hear her crying, but I couldn’t see her.” There was too much smoke, then flames. But passenger Jerry Schemmel had heard the cries first. He plunged into the fiery fuselage, found the baby in an upside-down overhead bin, ran into the cornfield and thrust the infant into a woman’s arms. That is where the overjoyed Michaelsons found their daughter.

Rescuers marveled at finding two rows of three seats each that had been flung from the aircraft. A woman in the middle of one row was barely bruised. Her husband, seated beside her, and two passengers in the row behind her were dead. Along with most passengers in the rows near the wing, a handful of those at the rear were also alive. The three-man cockpit crew had to be cut free of the tangled and wrecked flight deck, but all survived. Of the eight attendants, only one died.

Safety experts attributed the high survival rate most of all to the heroics of Captain Haynes in leveling off the DC-10 until the final seconds. “He belongs in the pilots’ hall of fame,” declared Joe Sullivan, a retired flight engineer for American Airlines. The landing gear, dropped by gravity because of the hydraulics failure, helped support the part of the cabin where most survivors had been seated. The dampness of the cornfield from recent rains cushioned the crash impact. Fire-resistant seat upholstery installed at the insistence of the National Transportation Safety Board was also credited. So too were the rescue and medical efforts of the Sioux City area. So many doctors responded that there were two on hand for each hospitalized passenger. Local volunteers lined up for more than a block to donate 300 pints of blood, far more than was needed.

It will be months before the NTSB reports on the cause of the crash. Two questions undoubtedly will be deeply probed. Why did the turbofan engine, built by General Electric and used on DC-10s, break up in flight? Were all three hydraulic systems knocked out, and if so, can they be better protected?

During the 1970s, DC-10s were involved in two major crashes in which the hydraulic lines were implicated. The world’s worst single-plane accident occurred in 1974, when a Turkish Airlines DC-10 lost an improperly secured cargo door as the plane left Paris. The resulting pressure change buckled the cabin floor and broke the hydraulic tubes passing under it. All 346 occupants died. In a 1979 crash in Chicago, 279 were killed after an improperly installed wing engine on an American Airlines DC-10 tore away on takeoff, – ripping hydraulic lines and causing the pilot to lose control.

For the past ten years, the DC-10 has had a safety record that compares favorably with those of other wide-bodied jets. That is cold comfort to the families of the 110 passengers and crew who did not share in the miracle in that Iowa cornfield.

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