As one commenter on airspacemag.com put it, "Hollywood could learn a lot from true life, i.e., United 232." That's because when it comes to a real life loss of airliner flight control, situations don't get much worse than Flight 232.
Al Haynes commanded the DC-10 that hot July day in 1989. The plane was about 75 miles north of Sioux City, Iowa, en route from Denver to Chicago with 11 crew and 285 passengers, when one of the plane's three engines failed. "There was a loud BANG," Haynes said. The bang, he said, "was followed by a large vibration lasting a few seconds."
The noise was the sound of a cracked engine fan disk shooting out of the tail engine and freakishly hitting in the worst possible spot. The disk severed all the plane's hydraulic lines, virtually cutting off all steering and speed control.
For the next 45 minutes, Haynes, First Officer Bill Records, engineer Dudley Dvorak and instructor Dennis Fitch would need all their strength and good ideas to re-invent how to fly the DC-10.
But unlike the movie, flying upside down was not the solution to escaping this emergency.
"When the engine failed, the airplane started to turn to the right and started to roll," said Haynes. "If we had not stopped that and it had rolled over on its back, I'm sure the nose falling down would have increased the airspeed so fast that there's no way we could have controlled it."
"If we had gotten upside down, the party was over."
They learned how to steer the plane by adjusting the power in the aircraft's two remaining engines. It was like trying to drive a car without power steering, said Haynes, only harder.
The captain and Records struggled with the control wheel circling it steadily in right turn circles toward Sioux City airport. "It was very tiring," Haynes said. At the same time, Fitch struggled on his knees as he was forced to use both hands to muscle the plane's throttle levers, which also had become hard to move.
"I'll tell you what, we'll have a beer when this is all done," Fitch told Haynes, according to the flight recorder transcript. "Well, I don't drink," the captain replied, "but I'll sure as hell have one."
In the cabin, flight attendants worked to calm passengers and prepare them for a crash landing. "One passenger thought she was having a heart attack and the flight attendants calmed her down, and it turned out she wasn't having a heart attack, she was just very nervous," Haynes said.
As the plane neared the ground at a much-too-fast speed, passengers were warned to brace for impact. Video of the DC-10's fiery cartwheel landing was plastered across TV news channels for months after the disaster.
"The minute we hit the ground, I was knocked out," Haynes recalls. "I woke up in the cockpit talking to Dudley, I only remember bits and pieces of the conversation. I remember when the rescuers found us, someone asked, 'Are there really four of you in there?'"
One-hundred-ten passengers and one crew member -- flight attendant Rene Le Beau -- died in the crash. One-hundred-eighty-five passengers and crew survived.
In the months after the disaster, authorities recreated the emergency in flight simulators. But the simulator pilots were unable to maintain control of the plane all the way through to landing.
Sometimes life produces real events that rival Hollywood's wildest imaginations. That's what happened in 1989, when the crew of United Airlines Flight 232 achieved the nearly impossible.