What a plane crash feels like: The inside story
August 2, 2014 8:11 AM   Subscribe

“When we yelled ‘Brace!’ ” Brown said later, “I always described it as if you watched a wind come across a field of wheat and everything bends. That’s how it was. Everybody went down. It was like a field of wheat being blown over.” What a plane crash feels like: The inside story of an American aviation disaster — and miracle

In 1989, United 232 crash-landed, splintered apart and burst into flames: 184 of 296 people lived.
posted by heyho (25 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
“And then I come back on and I see parents, lap children,” and she made the announcement, telling them to put their children on the floor. “As I’m saying this, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this has got to be the most ludicrous, ludicrous, thing I’ve ever said in my life.’ I’m telling people to put their prize, treasured possession on the floor? In other words, let’s just hope for the best. Everybody else has a seat belt. I was so appalled at what I was saying.”

I don't think I could do that. It would feel like complete and total abandonment when my child needs my protection the most. I am still surprised that you can bring a baby on board with no provision for being properly strapped into a seat...up to 24 months I believe.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:12 AM on August 2, 2014

This transcript of a talk by Captain Al Haynes was linked in a previous thread on UA 232. It's pretty incredible.
posted by compartment at 9:21 AM on August 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

I am always so so so impressed by how critical flight attendants are in crashes with survivors. What a hard job they have, training for a rare eventuality that they hope they will never face.
posted by muddgirl at 9:31 AM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

The flight attendants are real heroes. They have to put up with being treated like the waitstaff 99,999 times out of 100,000 when they are literally the people who can save you from death if the worst happens.
posted by xingcat at 9:39 AM on August 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

From wikipedia:

Fifty-two children, including four "lap children" without their own seats, were on board the flight due to the United Airlines "Children's Day" promotion. Eleven children, including one lap child, died.[12] Many of the children had traveled alone.

Jan Brown Lohr – United 232's Senior Flight Attendant. She was forced by regulation to ask parents with "lap children" aboard flight 232 to place their children on the cabin floor during the flight's final moments before impact. One of four children died from smoke inhalation. The deceased child's mother confronted Lohr at the crash scene. Since then, Lohr has lobbied in Washington D.C. for new federal regulations requiring all children to have a seat belt on every flight.[20]

It was a long time ago but I think I recall a lot of talk about this issue after the crash--did babies stand a better chance of surviving if left unrestrained on the floor, or if they are held by a parent in their seat.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:46 AM on August 2, 2014

"Regulations require me to ask you to place lap children on the floor..."
posted by gottabefunky at 10:13 AM on August 2, 2014

compartment's link above is one of the most intense things I have ever read.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 10:24 AM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I believe the film Fearless was partially inspired by this crash. It's a very intense film.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:34 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The story of United 232 really amazes me. They got So. CLOSE. to making it down more or less ok. Everybody worked together in an impossible situation.

I go back and re-watch the shows (Air Crash Investigation, Mayday) that deal with this crash periodically. Sad and amazed every time.
posted by Archer25 at 10:35 AM on August 2, 2014

A TV show about the crash and the NTSB investigation afterwards.
posted by gudrun at 10:37 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sioux City: United 232 heavy, winds currently 360 at 11, three sixty at
eleven, you're cleared to land on any runway.

UAL 232: You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?

Amazing transcript. Thanks for posting that.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:38 AM on August 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Man, even the Wikipedia account is riveting.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:40 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

The episode of Errol Morris' First Person on Dennis Fitch is unforgettable.
posted by borges at 11:01 AM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Even though I've read the accounts before, that transcript makes me want to take a little lie-down. Somehow the performance anxiety of being responsible for landing a broken plane full of people seems more horrifying than dealing with the actual death and destruction in the aftermath.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:14 AM on August 2, 2014

Damn, that was a hard read.

I was a kid when this happened, not exactly super aware of the larger world, and we'd just moved to that corner of Nebraska. SUX was the first airport I ever flew out of, probably not all that long after the crash. I'm guessing most of my memories of the thing actually come from watching the made-for-TV Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232 with my parents a few years later.
posted by brennen at 12:30 PM on August 2, 2014

That transcript is chilling. I've admired the crew of this flight since I first learned of the incident and it just seems like if you're going to be unlucky enough to have a disaster, all the right pieces were in place to make the best of it, on the ground and in the air.

A guy I know was shot in the head during a mugging and the bullet traveled in such a way that he was able to fully recover. He was incredibly lucky, if you discount the awful luck that brought him the bullet in the first place.
posted by maxwelton at 12:35 PM on August 2, 2014

"No, you won't be ready. But you can be prepared. "

The flight attendants I know like to say "we're here to save you, not serve you. "
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:44 PM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think I could do that. It would feel like complete and total abandonment when my child needs my protection the most.

Totally. I don't even have kids but I can't imagine wanting to anything other than wrap myself around their whole body. What an awful thing to have to do, and an awful thing to have to tell people to do.
posted by billiebee at 1:02 PM on August 2, 2014

The math of allowing babies and toddlers to fly as lap children has been that a plane is vastly safer than a car per mile traveled, and that young families often cannot afford tickets for their children to have their own seats. So they will drive instead, and overall more small children will die. It's fair to argue about the math and if it still works out, but it wasn't a random "who cares, let the kids die" choice.
posted by tavella at 3:48 PM on August 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

This seems to be a video of the talk by Captain Al Haynes, that the transcript compartment provided the link for above is taken from.
posted by gudrun at 4:55 PM on August 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

This was a big deal when it happened and other DC-10 incidents around that time prompted a lot of outcry, but I don't think anything came of it. The plane had some point-of-failure issues (which I could be overstating or understating depending on who you talk to) but at least one pilot forum seems to lean towards little specific concern with the model having significant problems and more attention is focused on procedures (like closing doors properly per the plane's design) and proper maintenance.

I got the feeling the plane had some touchy issues that can be brushed away as million-to-one chances but have since been avoided in subsequent designs:

The DC-10 included no cable backup for the hydraulic powered flight controls because it was considered nearly impossible for three hydraulic systems to fail during one flight, and furthermore the control surfaces are too large to be moved without hydraulic assistance. However, all three hydraulic systems were in close proximity, directly beneath the tail engine. The #2 engine explosion hurled fragments that ruptured all three lines, resulting in total loss of control to the elevators, ailerons, spoilers, horizontal stabilizer, rudder, flaps and slats.

It was replayed over and over and basically looked one-degree away from a total face-plant "everyone dies" crash, and instead a "I can't believe anyone survived that tumbling fireball or that the pilot was able to maneuver it from 30,000+ feet this well."

Meanwhile I've been flying in and out of John Wayne (SNA) Airport in CA lately...this always makes me nervous, but I only noticed it enough to look it up after a rough takeout on one recent trip out of four.

From the comments:

Last time I flew out of John Wayne, the pilot gave a running commentary. Paraphrasing: "We are taking off at full power and climbing at 25 degrees. We have no power margin, so if anything happens there is very little I can do to recover. In a few moments, I will cut the throttles, per the noise abatement procedures. It is not an engine failure, although if one did fail at that point, I would not be able to circle around and land. I do this a couple times a month and hate every second of it."

The one time I noticed a crazy take-off, the Santa Ana winds were blowing early in the season unexpectedly, it was unexpectedly hot, and I had my wife and kids with me, uncharacteristically. I suspect the takeoff direction wasn't ideal, they reverse it a small percent of the time and it just seemed like we were flying into a wind-shear attack.

Everyone on the plane grew silent as it fishtailed and bounced up and down and the hull flexed, the floor felt like it was twisting at my feet, etc. There was a solid 5 minute period of total silence and dread where the plane seemed to be desperately fighting to go upward, and I just kind of clutched my chest fearing my heart would jump out while putting on my game face. The kids didn't really seem to notice at all, but the adults were mostly white-knuckling it and looking to each other for reassurance once it stopped. First time I ever really went into the whole thought process of ... WTF do I say to my family, they're right here...
posted by aydeejones at 2:58 AM on August 3, 2014

There is a great book called "The Black Box Transcripts" assembled by Malcolm Machpherson back in 1998. I bought it and used to read it while on planes in order to prevent people from sitting next to me. (I flew a lot of shuttles, which were more of a "sit where you want" kind of thing. It was a different era before 9-11 when it came to flying.) This plane crash was one of those featured in the book. Full disclosure: after reading that I had a much greater understanding of what happens in the run-up to a plane crash. I had never had a fear of flying before, but after I finished that book I was a nervous flyer for a while, just because I could imagine in great detail what would happen if I went down.

If you've ever read the comic Strangers in Paradise, it definitely feels like the plane crash is based on this incident.
posted by rednikki at 1:18 PM on August 3, 2014

From the transcript- was this an attempt at humor?

"Sioux City: United 232 heavy, winds currently 360 at 11, three sixty at
eleven, you're cleared to land on any runway.

UAL 232: You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?"

If I'm reading it right, talk about some serious gallows humor there. Kudos.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:18 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting post to me as I've spent the day reflecting about a crash that occurred on this day 29 years ago, Delta Flight 191 in Dallas, TX. 27 people survived.
posted by agregoli at 9:55 AM on August 4, 2014

gottabefunky: "Man, even the Wikipedia account is riveting."

I get on a kick where I read the Wikipedia writeups of plane crashes every once in a while. I gotta stop doing that before traveling.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:43 PM on August 5, 2014

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