It remains one of the most shocking incidents in aviation history: United Airlines Flight 232, bound for Chicago from Denver, loses its hydraulics when an engine explodes, threatening to send nearly 300 passengers and crew to a frightful and certain death. After 44 minutes of barely controlled flight, the plane lands in Sioux City, Iowa, where it flips onto its back and bursts into flames — all captured in a dramatic video.
There were 112 deaths, but 184 onboard survived. Pilot Al Haynes, who died not that day in 1989 but Sunday, at age 87, was celebrated as a hero whose mastery prevented the worst this disaster could have wrought.
The story calls to mind that of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a US Airways plane on the Hudson River in 2009 after birds disabled the plane’s engines. America watched with its breath held as Sully saved the day and all 155 people onboard survived.
Haynes lived for 30 years after the United crash with a more complicated narrative, one that blended tragedy with triumph. He mourned the 112 in his care that day who died. Survivors were injured or traumatized. Haynes himself was battered, with a concussion and 92 stitches in his scalp. “As captain, I felt I was responsible for each and every one of those people’s safety,” he said in 1999. “Overcoming that mentally was very hard to deal with.”
It’s often said that leaders get too much credit when things go right and too much blame when they go wrong. In the most challenging and dramatic circumstances imaginable — at the helm of a passenger plane at 37,000 feet with an engine in shards and control of his DC-10 failing — Haynes kept his head and saved lives by bringing down the plane at the Sioux City airport. “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?” he even joked to air traffic control, dissipating tension for a moment, after a controller cleared all of the airport’s concrete ribbons for the inevitable crash landing.
Afterward, Haynes didn’t cultivate an image of hero as solo swashbuckler. Like Sully, he credited his training, even for mastering circumstances beyond nightmares. Amid the crisis, Haynes welcomed assistance from his crew and a DC-10 trainer who happened to be on the flight. Haynes was a leader who was willing to listen and integrate the experience of others, as he’d been trained to do. The pilot, he noted, wasn’t always the smartest person in the room.
In subsequent years on the speaking circuit, Haynes stressed this need for collaborative leadership. He advocated to improve airplane safety. And he reminded audiences that it was OK to need to work through trauma. “You can’t get over any type of trauma or tragedy without talking about it,” he told the Sioux City Journal in 2010. “I have given over 1,500 talks, and it has helped me accept what has happened.”
His good work didn’t end on the runway. Yet given the shock of seeing that plane break apart and burn — and then to learn that, unbelievably, so many passengers walked out of the wreckage — some couldn’t help but see it as a miracle, and the pilot as the instrument of that miracle. Like Sully, Haynes became a symbol of human calm and capability beyond most people’s imagining. And he’s just the kind of hero all of us hope to see every time we peer into the cockpit.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE