Wind Beneath Their Wings
02/24/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
ON JULY 19, 1989, ONE OF THE MOST remarkable feats in aviation history took place in the skies over Iowa. Capt. Al Haynes was piloting United Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago with 296 passengers and crew on hoard when one of his three engines exploded. Shrapnel from the blast severed all hydraulic lines, knocking out the DC-10's steering and control systems.
What happened next has become the stuff of legend—as well as the reality behind Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232, a TV movie to be aired by ABC on Monday, Feb. 24 (see review, Tube Picks & Pans).
In the only other known case of similar hydraulic: failure, a crippled Japan Airlines 747 crashed into a mountain near Tokyo, killing 520 aboard in August 1985. Yet while zooming out of control at 37,000 feet, Haynes, copilot Bill Records and flight engineer Dudley Dvorak devised a plan to save the crippled DC-10. "If this had happened to a fighter plane during the war," says Haynes, 60, "the pilot bailed out. Of course," he adds drily, "we couldn't." By delicately varying the thrust on his two remaining engines, Haynes and his crew somehow managed to coax the plane down for a fiery crash landing at the airport in Sioux City, Iowa. An amateur videotape of the crash is both horrendous and compelling: The DC-10, coming in too fast—because Haynes couldn't throttle back—bounces, catches its right wing on the ground and cartwheels into the runway, exploding in flame. In all, 112 people died in the Flight 232 catastrophe, but 184 survived, delivered from certain death by Haynes's extraordinary skill. (United and McDonnell Douglas later conducted 45 simulations of the same event, none of which ended in a successful landing.)
Haynes displayed an almost preternatural calm throughout the 45-minute ordeal, improvising when necessary and never losing his sense of humor. When told that all the runways at Sioux City had been cleared for landing, he replied with a chuckle, "You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh? I'm just aiming for Iowa."
Today Haynes is, if anything, a greater hero than ever to those he helped save. He has never stopped caring about the lives he touched, and he constantly exchanges calls and notes with survivors, many of whom identify themselves by their seat numbers on Flight 232. "Talking about what happened is my therapy," says Haynes. "It is helping me heal." But his dedication and commitment go far beyond that. Since his mandatory retirement at age 60 last year, Haynes has embarked on an ambitious speaking schedule. United picks up the travel tab for Haynes and wife Darlene, 57, who often accompanies him as he travels around the country to give from 15 to 20 talks a month on the importance of emergency preparations and planning. Haynes credits the skill of the Sioux City rescuers for minimizing the loss of life. "Al is one of the best people I've ever met," says Garry Priest, 25, a communications consultant from Northglenn, Colo., who helped found the Flight 232 Survivors Support Group. "He has really restored my faith in mankind."
Most of those who survived Flight 232 continue to feel its impact in some way. Haynes himself acknowledges that he may be more "emotional" these days, but the biggest difference for him, he says, is that the crash cured him of his lifelong reticence about speaking in public. He even used to ask the second flight officer to make chitchat with the passengers over the P.A. system. "Now I have a message, I guess," he says.
By contrast, many of the survivors agree that the crash—and the soul-searching that followed—has profoundly reshaped their lives. "I got on the plane with a mid-life crisis and got off in Sioux City without it." says Joan Wernick, 47, a Boulder, Colo., music teacher who survived the flight with her husband. Peter, 46. "Wrinkles aren't that far up on the priority list when you've just gotten off a burning airplane." For others, though, the shock they received that day left discernible cracks in the psyche. Jerry Schemmel, 32, who at the time of the crash worked as a top official for the Continental Basketball Association, describes what he calls his survivor's guilt. Although he escaped the crash with only minor injuries, among those killed was his best friend, CBA commissioner Jay Randall. In 1990. Schemmel quit the league and later took his current job as a play-by-play announcer with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. "I had to see Jay's fiancée every day and then CBA coworkers," he says. "I always wondered what they were thinking."
Given the intensity of the trauma, it is hardly surprising that more than a few of the survivors regard Haynes with a reverence approaching awe. Priest recalls the exhilaration he felt when Haynes phoned him back one time during the formation of the Flight 232 support group to pledge his help. "He left a message on my machine," says Priest. "I didn't erase it for a month." Haynes plainly recognizes the enormous role he now plays in the lives of so many people. So when Peter Wernick, who headed up a bluegrass band called Hot Rize, invited Haynes to a gig he was playing in Seattle less than a year after the crash, Haynes gladly accepted. "I remember being on pins and needles all day about meeting him," says Wernick. Not only did Haynes come with his family, but three months later, dining a layover in Denver, he showed the Wernicks around the United facilities.
For all his efforts to help soothe the survivors, Haynes makes it a point in his speeches to honor the memory of those who died in the crash. "It's always very emotional for me to talk about them," he says, tears welling in his eyes. "It's a miracle that 184 lived. But we cannot forget those people we lost and their families." Next to flying, remembering is something that Haynes does exceptionally well. "I once told him, "I respected what you did in the cockpit, but I respect you more for the way you've handled things since the crash,' " says Jerry Schemmel. But some of the very qualities—grace and hardheadedness—that helped Al Haynes negotiate the crisis over Sioux City prevent him from feeling any self-satisfaction. As Schemmel tells it, the hero of Flight 232 replied simply, "One event does not make a person."
RHODA DONKIN JONES in Seattle, VICKIE BANE in Denver