The Impossible Landing of United Airlines Flight 232

This is a really impressive video simulation of United flight 232, the 1989 Sioux City accident, that combines air traffic control and contemporary news footage to give an understanding of what happened that day on July 19.

The Sioux City crash is one of the most famous of the last forty years. A DC10 from Denver’s old Stapleton airport to Chicago O’Hare had 296 passengers and crew onboard. 111 people died, but it’s considered a miracle and a testament to the crew onboard that the rest survived.

Pilots landed the plane without full control, flight attendants got passengers off the aircraft once on the ground, and emergency responders at the airport — who had just drilled for a similar incident the week before — all made survival for 185 people possible.

This 16 year old DC10 had 43,401 hours and 16,997 cycles under its belt. The captain had 33 years of experience and over 30,000 flight hours with United.

At 37,000 feet the tail mounted engine exploded and disintegrated. Debris punctured the plane’s hydraulics and it would not longer respond to controls. There were no procedures for total loss of hydraulics on a DC-10. The cockpit crew managed the level the aircraft by adjusting power to the remaining engines.

They declared an emergency and tried to head for Sioux City. When air traffic control told them they were cleared to land, they were told “any runway.” The Captain, somehow mustering gallows humor, replied “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?”

They planned to land on runway 31 but lack of control of the aircraft prevented them from lining up for it. They dumped fuel and managed to make a series of right hand turns, ultimately lining up with the shorter (and permanently closed) runwaay 22.

The DC10 came down fast without flaps or slats. The right wing hit the runway, spilled fuel, and caught fire. Part of the tail broke off. The rest of the plane started to break apart as well.

Some passengers died from the impact. Others died from smoke inhalation. Sadly the flight had 52 children onboard. Eleven children died, including one lap infant and several unaccompanied minors.

There was a fatigue crack in the engine fan disk. The NTSB blamed United’s engine overhaul facility for the failure. GE learned from this crash to adjust its engine production process to reduce the changes of metal fatigue.

(HT: J.K.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The opening scene of the 1993 Jeff Bridges movie Fearless is loosely based on this crash. It is the single most terrifying depiction of a plane crash I’ve seen, which is probably why it didn’t do very well at the box office.

  2. I lived near Alta, Iowa at the time. That is where all the engine debris fell. The whole area was scoured for quite a while. It was a tragic and triumphant day.

  3. Many copy errors in this one. Not too late to fix them.

    Maybe try proofing before posting, like the professional publication this purports to be?

  4. Just a standard day for a DC-10. Engines falling off, doors falling off, whole engine pylons failing.

  5. I remember sitting in the TWA terminal at JFK waiting for a delayed flight to LHR on that day, with footage of the crash playing repeatedly on the big screen TV in the first class lounge. It was surreal.

  6. Google “Jan Brown DC10” (she was the lead Flight Attendant on UA232) and read some of the efforts she has made to try to protect infants during a crash due to what happened on board that crash.

  7. What mike and nososmart said, x2.

    Remember Stapleton well and United flying DC-10’s everywhere. ORD-DTW all the time, once I flew DEN-BNA. Great ride, but the most/largest engineering fails of any modern era jet. I remember really liking F on that plane.

  8. That was a terrible day, amazing that the pilots were able to keep the damage as low as it was. Clear headed thinking from all involved, and we don’t have the cabin experience as part of this account…

  9. I am from the Bronson/Sioux City area and there were people I knew that were part the large response team. In the face of all that was happening, they all did a terrific wonderful job. They never let their fear get the best of them. They had to handle things some of them were never trained in. They did everything above and beyond, they were wonderful.

  10. what prompted you to post this at this time? (Typically these start to pop up near to July 19th).

    I echo Mary Klindt’s statements. The people and communities of “Sioux-land” were fantastic… showing up in ways that could never have been expected of them, in roles they never anticipated having. Some of them literally left the tractor in the farm field and drove to the fire truck or hospital. Other’s lined up to serve in other ways. It was a demonstration of compassion and service at it’s very finest.

  11. My step father was a DR. and my step brother was a Sioux City fire fighter. My dad took care of many including Dudley Dovorak, the flight engineer and my brother drove the fire chief around so was on the runway and watched the crash. Sioux city really came through in a big way that day and the many days that followed.

  12. I lost my 8th Grade English Teacher on that flight. George Orions, what an awesome man he was! It was so sad when we learned of his passing the following week, he didn’t return back to work as we had a substitute for a few days. He’ll never be forgotten, or the tragedy and major loss we had upon us. RIP George +++

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