Life or Death in 37 Minutes

Flight 262 Memorial (2)

Continuing my blog theme on health and wellness, today I am going to share what I learned about stress management, first-hand, from someone who demonstrated an amazing amount of grace and presence of mind during a life-and-death crisis with the lives of 296 people in his hands. I am talking about United Airlines Pilot, Al Haynes, captain of Flight 232 that crash-landed in Sioux City, IA on July 19, 1989. Al Haynes, was the captain who against all odds, along with his team of pilots, saved 185 lives in a situation where it was deemed impossible to do so.

I was privileged to see him speak in person and was truly inspired by his story, courage, aplomb and humility. I was recently tasked with researching the topic of “grace under pressure” so I examined how Flight 232 unfolded and the pilots’ reactions, because I could think of no better example.

flight 232 banner

First, I was shocked to learn that this involved great physical effort and a near-impossible balancing-act the pilots performed to keep the plane upright–for over 37 minutes! I didn’t know that after the complete failure of all hydraulic systems caused by the violent explosion of a fan blade in the #2 engine, the airplane’s gyrations included a constant phugoid pattern (nose-up/nose-down motion), all the while the right wing drooped and the plane made 360 degree right turns. To prevent the plane from crashing down or turning over, the pilots used all the strength and brainpower they had to keep the plane upright until they could try and land at the nearest airport. They did this by controlling the throttles of the two remaining engines, engaging just enough thrust back-and-forth, completely by “feel”. To quote Al Haynes, “we had no ailerons to bank the airplane, we had no rudder to turn it, no elevators to control the pitch, we had no leading-edge flaps or slats to slow the airplane down, no trailing-edge flaps for landing, we had no spoilers on the wing, to help us get down, or help us slow down, once we were on the ground. And on the ground, we had no steering, nose wheel or tail, and no brakes.”

In addition they hit the landing strip at 100 mph over the average speed an airplane is at when it comes into a landing strip. With no braking power.

What struck me the most in this story were these things: First, when I listened to the audio of Captain Haynes and air traffic control, I was amazed at how calm both of these men were—or how calm they appeared by their composed, unruffled conversation. At one point, just minutes before the plane gets to the airport, Captain Haynes and the air traffic controller said this:

Air Traffic Controller, Sioux City: “United 232 heavy, winds currently 360 at 11, three sixty at eleven, you’re cleared to land on any runway.
Capt Haynes, UAL 232: (Laughter) “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?”

Yes, that’s right. In the midst of quite possibly his own death, Capt Haynes kept his composure enough to even chuckle. His last few sentences with the air traffic controller were poised, calm and sounded even positive—as if, despite all of the above facts, he was going to land this airplane safely.

232 airplane pic

So the first three points I take from this example are to stay calm when under pressure, maintain a sense of humor to perhaps endure it, and also, believe you can do it! However, frightening the impending task appears, BELIEVE in your abilities, whether singly or as part of a team working together.

So, this team of pilots were focused on landing that plane safely on a runway, using the facts of their situation as they knew them, as well as whatever they had at their disposal—which wasn’t much! Unfortunately, lack of control of the plane caused by its complete hydraulic failure kept that from happening exactly – the right wing tipped down and the plane cartwheeled down the runway. But the fact they even got to the runway was a feat in itself. Dennis Fitch, the pilot manning the throttles said he had two conflicting factors he was working with in terms of the landing—if he tried to slow the plane down, he could cause the wing to go up; however, they were coming in at too high a speed and sink rate (I presume that means the plane was at too high of an angle with the ground) which he said was a sink rate 3 times the plane’s capability to land. So he went full throttle as they reached the landing strip. Indeed, by trying to level out the plane and reduce the sink rate, one wing went up, the other dipped and that’s why it cartwheeled.

The great news of the story is that 185 people survived. The fact the pilots navigated the plane to that runway at all was miraculous! In fact, during the 37 minutes from engine explosion to landing, the pilots contacted United’s technical support team. When the crew told tech support that all 3 hydraulic systems were out, tech support didn’t believe them; they thought they hadn’t heard them correctly. When the crew impressed upon tech support that there was no question about it—all three systems were out—the tech support team later told the pilots, “At that point we didn’t know what to say to you because we knew we were talking to four dead men.”

sioux city memorial pic

This last remark was taken from Dennis Fitch’s story “One Hell of a Tale” an Errol Morris documentary. Well, this blog is going on too long, but it’s an amazing story I just can’t seem to get out of my bloodstream. SO, next blog I’ll talk about what else I gleaned from this story about how to handle stress and grace under pressure. Check these guys out online. They have amazing perspectives and amazing courage.

About abbyglenn
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