[Editor's Note: NPR's Howard Berkes covered the 1989 crash landing of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa.]
Long before Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and the miracle landing on the Hudson, three pilots in the cockpit of a United Airlines DC-10 saved scores of lives with a near-impossible crash landing in an Iowa cornfield.
Nearly 300 people were aboard Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago on July 19, 1989. Pilot Al Haynes was in the cockpit with First Officer William Records.
An off-duty pilot who had hitched a ride home on the flight, Denny Fitch, was sitting with the rest of the passengers when he heard an explosion in the tail engine and went to the cockpit to help. The blast cut the hydraulic lines that make controlled flight possible. Fitch got down on his knees and used all his strength to manipulate the plane's throttles, while both Haynes and Records struggled with the yoke, the steering wheel.
Fitch died this week at age 69, losing a battle with brain cancer. But on that hot summer day 23 years ago, he and the two other pilots wrenched the jet toward an Iowa airport without the hydraulics required for steering.
"I think what you had was three men desperately trying to get what control they can of the aircraft," said Jim Burnett of the National Transportation Safety Board during a news conference after the crash.
Desperate is right. The captain found that the only way to control the plane was by varying the thrust of the engines. Even then, the plane could only veer toward the right.
"Varying their thrust gave the pilots some crude control over the aircraft's elevation," reporter Bill Zahren wrote in the Sioux City Journal three days later. "But it was in the form of 'porpoising' or repeated rising and falling of the plane like a porpoise swimming and then coming up for air every so often."
With Fitch on his knees at the throttles and Records and Haynes both trying to use the yoke, the plane managed to stay aloft while making a series of 360-degree turns to the right as it approached the airport in Sioux City.
Burnett told reporters that air traffic controllers said the plane was "nearly normal" as it approached the tarmac. Emergency crews were standing by along with TV news crews.
All three men in the cockpit had strapped themselves into seats for the landing. Witnesses say the right wing dipped slightly and hit the ground, sending the plane into cartwheels and into a cornfield between runways.
"I was 46 years old the day I walked into that cockpit," Fitch later said in a documentary about the crash. "I had the world ahead of me. I was a captain on a major U.S. airline. I had a beautiful healthy family, loving wife, great future. And at 4 o'clock, I'm trying to stay alive."
Flames shot from the plane as it broke into three pieces in the corn. A third of the passengers died.
"To find out 112 people didn't make it, that just about destroyed me," Fitch once said. "I would have given my life for any of them. It was a really tough time."
But dozens survived. Aviation experts failed to replicate the landing in simulators, according to Mike Hamilton, a United pilot who flew with Fitch and who spoke with The Associated Press.
"I'm not aware of any that replicated the success these guys had," Hamilton said. "Most of the simulations never even made it close to the ground."
Flight attendant Susan Callandar was one of the survivors and she told the AP: "To be one of those pilots, they are all heroes." Fitch, she said, "played an instrumental role in saving all those lives."
Standing near the wreckage a few days after the crash, I tried to describe the scene for NPR's All Things Considered.
"There's one particular pile of aluminum — at least, that's what it looks like, an unruly stack of crumpled aluminum," I said. "Well, that's actually the cockpit of the plane. It doesn't resemble a cockpit or anything else for that matter. And one of the amazing facts about this whole tragedy is ... that three people — the cockpit crew — were found alive in that pile of junk."
Denny Fitch is survived by his wife, Rosa, as well as three children, two stepchildren, 10 grandchildren and those still living among the 184 people who were pulled alive from the wreckage of Flight 232.