Yesterday I was saddened to learn of the death of Denny Fitch, the United Airlines pilot who helped United flight 232 make it to the runway in Sioux City after the DC-10’s engine exploded in flight. Fitch was off-duty that day and happened to take flight 232 instead of another flight to Chicago. When the plane got in desperate trouble, he joined the crew in the cockpit and volunteered to handle the throttles while the captain and first officer physically wrestled with the other controls. If he hadn’t, it’s almost certain everybody on the DC-1o would have died. Instead, although 112 people perished when the jet hit the runway and broke apart, almost 200 survived. Some walked out of the Iowa cornfields almost unscathed. Fitch nearly died.
The AP story offers more details: Off-Duty Pilot Who Helped Crippled Jet Make Impossible Landing Dies.
CHICAGO — Airline pilot Denny Fitch was hitching a ride home on a DC-10 in 1989 when heard an explosion somewhere in the back of the jet. He soon made his way to the cockpit to see if the crew needed help.
Inside, he found three men desperately trying to keep the giant plane in the air after losing all hydraulic power needed to control direction and altitude. Fitch took a seat in the only space available – the floor – and helped operate some of the only equipment still working – the wing engines – to try to land the aircraft carrying nearly 300 people.
Fitch, who died Monday at 69, used everything he knew about flying to confront an emergency that engineers never imagined could happen to a modern jetliner.
When the crippled plane crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, more than half of the passengers survived – one of the most admired life-saving efforts in aviation history.
A few years ago, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris interviewed Fitch about the crash. The film is called One Hell of a Tale. And if you have an hour, spare the time to watch it. It’s a gripping story. What comes through is Fitch’s quiet competence, his love of flying, love for his family, and his deep grief that he couldn’t save everybody on the flight.
“What makes you so sure you’re going to make it home tonight?” he said. “I was 46 years old the day I walked into that cockpit. 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.”
This isn’t meant to be a sad post. I find Denny Fitch incredibly inspiring, as a pilot and a human being. “Hero” barely covers it.