The crew of United Airlines Flight 232 were suddenly confronted with complete hydraulic failure – a situation not contemplated by the flight manual because it was deemed virtually impossible
Alfred Haynes would have been a commercial pilot like any other, logging thousands of routine flight hours and then slipping into peaceful retirement. But a sudden failure of the fan disk of one engine of his Douglas DC-10 jet airliner triggered a chain of events that made him a legend in the aviation community. The occurrence transformed his life and helped him make a lasting contribution to safe commercial flying.
Alfred “Al” Haynes was born on August 31, 1931, in Paris, Texas and grew up in Dallas. He entered Naval Aviation training in 1952, joined the US Marine Corps on commissioning and later became a flight instructor. When he left military service in 1956, his flying career continued with United Airlines. By the time of the fateful flight on July 19, 1989, he had accumulated 29,967 hours of flight time with United, of which 7,190 were on the DC-10.
United Airlines Flight 232, captained by Al Haynes, was a scheduled flight from Denver to Chicago. Airborne just over an hour, when the DC-10 was at 37,000 feet, the fan disk of the tail-mounted General Electric CF6-6D engine explosively disintegrated. Such an occurrence on a three-engine airliner in cruise flight is not catastrophic, because the remaining engines are adequate to recover the aircraft safely. However, debris damaged the plane’s tail section at many places, puncturing the lines of all three standalone hydraulic systems.
The crew were suddenly confronted with complete hydraulic failure – a situation not contemplated by the flight manual because it was deemed virtually impossible. The autopilot disengaged and, as the co-pilot fought to control the aircraft, Haynes shut down the malfunctioning engine. Seconds later, the pilots found that they had lost control of the stricken jet since even with the control column held fully left and back, the plane started banking to the right with the nose dipping. With great presence of mind, before the huge airliner rolled onto its back, they throttled the left wing-mounted engine to idling while simultaneously applying full power to the right. And they managed to level the wings, thus regaining a semblance of control.
On learning that Dennis Fitch, an experienced United Airlines captain and DC-10 flight instructor was among the passengers, Haynes asked him to come to the cockpit. For over 40 minutes the two tried to control the plane by varying the speeds of the two wing engines and steer it to the nearest airport, in Sioux City, Iowa. They successfully lowered the landing gear using the backup mechanical lowering system. With great skill and dexterity they managed to correctly align the airliner for landing on one of the runways. However, deprived of the hydraulically operated flaps and slats they were unable to bring their flight parameters anywhere close to the recommended values. Later estimates placed their actual landing speed at 220 knots with sink rate of 1,850 feet per minute against the required 140 knots and 300 feet per minute. The airliner’s right wingtip hit the runway first and leaked copious fuel which caught fire immediately. The aircraft broke into several parts, finally rolling onto its back. Of the 296 passengers and crew aboard, 111 died, but 185 survived. The quick reaction of the safety services and the fact that the accident happened in broad daylight, probably saved many lives.
The accident investigators tried to reproduce the emergency situation in a simulator, but found that even expert pilots were unable to execute a similar survivable landing. While Haynes was hailed as a hero because of his calm and quick thinking under extreme stress, he was far too modest to accept accolades. Instead, whenever he spoke about the crash in numerous speaking assignments across the country, he regretted the lives lost. He also gave credit to the crew members, the flight attendants and even the passengers for remaining calm, even after he explained the gravity of the situation to them. Haynes declared, “I will stand in awe of them for the rest of my life.” He also said, “We were too busy to be scared. You must maintain your composure in the airplane or you will die. You learn that from your first day flying.”
Haynes’ attitude of sharing responsibility and credit differed from the prevailing norm that the captain was everything and all crew members had to obey him unquestioningly. His performance onboard Flight 232 proved that Crew Resource Management (CRM) training which United had been the first to introduce in 1981, is invaluable in a crisis. After this crash, CRM became the global standard for commercial aviation.
For years afterwards, Alfred Haynes kept meeting and trying to help the survivors and the families of victims as also those afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder. He retired from United Airlines in 1991 and died on August 25, 2019, in Seattle following a brief illness.