The situation aboard United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Chicago was dire on July 19, 1989, even unprecedented. An engine explosion had severed the DC-10's hydraulic lines, leaving the crew with almost no way to control the plane. 

Ultimately, the flight ended ended in a mix of tragedy and heroism, after its crew, led by United Airlines Capt. Al Haynes, crash-landed in Iowa at the Sioux City airport.

Although 112 people lost their lives, 184 of those aboard survived, after some heroic piloting and leadership on the part of Haynes and his crew.

You can see video of the crash, and hear part of the recording of Haynes's communications with air traffic control, here

Although he'd been injured in the crash, Haynes returned to fly for United until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1991. He passed away this week at the age of 87, just a month after the 30th anniversary of the flight. 

Haynes had given countless speeches and interviews about the incident, often blocking out 20 days each month for appearances, until he'd become ill. 

"He wanted something positive to come out of the bad things that happened," Hayne's daughter, Laurie Arguello, later said. "It was really important to him that people knew about how important teamwork was."

Here's a brief summary of the story of of flight 232, along with some of the reasons Haynes's actions those day garnered such praise.

1. He kept his composure.

Listening to the cockpit voice recordings, it's striking how calm Haynes and his crew are. They also remain polite: saying "please" and "thanks" over and over, for example. There was every reason to panic, too, given the apparent loss of all control. But Haynes maintained his bearing.

Tellingly, when he was approaching the Sioux City airport to try to land, he had the presence of mind to insist to the tower: "Whatever you do, keep us away from the city," while knowing that it was very likely he would not survive the landing,

"You must maintain your composure in the airplane or you will die," Hanes later said in an interview. "You learn that from your first day flying."

2. He marshaled every resource.

Besides his crew -- about whom we'll talk directly below -- Haynes marshaled everything: guidance from United's maintenance officials on the radio, air traffic control, and some good old fashioned ingenuity.

Mechanically, the problem simply was that all of the hydraulic lines connecting the cockpit controls to the plane were severed. So, the flight crew had to figure out on the fly how to control a giant commercial airliner.

The solution they came up with, which worked remarkably well considering, was to apply differential power on the remaining engines. This at least allowed them to stay airborne temporarily, make rough turns, and ultimately line up with one of the runways in Sioux City.

3. He empowered other people

Above almost all else, United 232 is remembered as an effective use of crew resource management. The flight had a three member flight crew, with an incredible amount of experience: 

  • Haynes as captain. (Nearly 30,000 hours of flight time, including more than 7,000 in the DC-10),
  • William Records as first officer. (Roughy 20,000 hours of flight time, including more than 600 in the DC-10), and 
  • Dudley Dvorak as second officer and flight engineer. (15,000 hours flight time, including just 33 hours in the DC-10). 

The flight also happened to be carrying passenger Dennis E. Fitch, an experienced pilot and DC-10 instructor (23,000 hours flight time, including more than 3,000 total in a DC-10), who came up to the cockpit to offer assistance.

The NTSB later cited Haynes's practice of crew resource management -- in short it's the art of leading while empowering team members to speak up and to leverage their experience -- as one of the reasons why the tragedy wasn't worse.

4. He maintained his sense of humor

It's not that Haynes never got frustrated or angry during the emergency, but he kept his sense of humor. Even in this summary of the transcript, there are eight breaks for laughter in what has to have been the most stressful possible situation.

Perhaps the best line illustrating this comes from the final approach, when the flight can barely be controlled at all, and United 232 gets clearance to land:

Sioux City Approach: United 232, the wind's currently three six zero at one one three sixty at eleven. You're cleared to land on any runway.

Captain Haynes: [Laughter]. Roger. [Laughter.] You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?

At the risk of stating the obvious, the crash of a commercial airliner is never a laughing matter. But either instinctively or by design, Haynes seems to have realized that humor can alleviate stress, which makes it easier for people to perform at their highest levels.

5. He stayed in command

A lot has been written about Haynes's leadership. But one thing that struck me after rereading the transcript of his talk with air traffic control and others both on the plane and the ground, is how he stays in command.

Some of this is gentle, but there are times when he takes control of the communications, for example when everyone else is talking over each other.

It's a basic tenet of effective leadership: If you're in a position of authority, and people are expecting you to lead, then you have only two choices: Lead, or else get out of the way so somebody else can.

Haynes chose to lead. And 184 people survived as a result. 

Published on: Aug 31, 2019
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