Pilot Hero of United Flight 232 Dies

 - May 21, 2012, 4:40 PM
The pilots on UA Flight 232, a McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, used the engine throttles to fly the stricken airliner to landing.

Denny Fitch, famous for his role in helping fly a crippled United Airlines DC-10 and saving the lives of 185 persons aboard, died last week in St. Charles, Ill., at the age of 69.

Fitch was a non-revenue passenger on his way home from work on July 19, 1989, aboard a United Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10. An hour out of Denver International (DEN) en route to O’Hare International (ORD), the fan disk inside Flight 232’s center engine disintegrated, sending shrapnel in every direction, severing all the aircraft’s hydraulic lines. This put to rest the belief that a triple-hydraulic failure on the DC-10 was impossible.

Fitch made his way to the cockpit to see if he could help Captain Al Haynes, First Officer William Records and Second Officer Dudley Dvorak, who had determined they had no flight controls of any kind. Because a triple-hydraulic failure was considered impossible, the DC-10 Pilot Operating Handbook offered no written solution, leaving the four pilots to pool their knowledge of the airplane and figure it out alone.

The crew realized early in the emergency that the only controls responding were the number one and three engine throttles. Sitting in the jumpseat, Fitch operated the power levers left and right at Haine’s command to steer the crippled aircraft toward Sioux City for an emergency landing.

Alerted well ahead of time, the media caught the agonizing last few seconds of the DC-10’s approach as it cartwheeled onto Runway 22 at Sioux Gateway Airport (SUX) and exploded into a ball of flame. One hundred eleven passengers died that day. But thanks to the courage and ingenuity of Fitch and the other UAL pilots aboard, controlling an airplane that most experts said should not have been able to fly, 185 people survived.

Fitch returned to flying after the accident and also became a motivational speaker. Some of his experiences are recounted in a two-part video on YouTube (Part 1 & Part 2).