Incredible Airmanship

The crew felt a jolt that rippled through the aircraft. Warning lights flashed: the autopilot disengaged as the tail-mounted engine went through the throws of a serious malfunction. The First Officer took the flight controls; the Captain focussed his immediate attention on the state of the failed engine. With their emergency checklist drawn, they tried to reduce the engine’s power to idle, but the Captain was unable to move the throttle. They then tried to pull the fuel supply shutoff lever. It wouldn’t budge. A firewall shutoff valve was then actuated which finally cut fuel flow to the crippled power plant.

In the few seconds that had already passed, the aircraft had veered off course. The First Officer responded with control column inputs, but the aircraft did not respond to his actions. At its own free will, the aircraft began rolling into an ever-steepening right bank, threatening to roll completely inverted. The crew brought the left wing engine’s throttle to idle, and commanded maximum power from the throttle for the right wing engine. The resultant differential thrust slowly allowed the aircraft to level out.

Out of immediate danger, the three-man crew tried to diagnose the problem. The Second Officer reported that all hydraulic systems were registering zero pressure. Knowing that all three were routed through the tail, they determined that debris from the catastrophic failure of their No. 2 engine had likely severed the lines. For such a failure, there was no backup system upon which to rely. And, with no hydraulics, they had no flight control systems with which to fly the aircraft. Damage to their tail kept their aircraft constantly wanting to veer right. With no flight controls available for use, there wasn’t much they could do to counteract the aircraft’s unstable course. No guidelines existed as to how to handle such an event. The situation was charting a course deep into the unknown, one nudging precariously close to calamity.

Off duty in the cabin, an instructor for such an aircraft joined the crew to offer his assistance. Upon realizing the circumstances before him, he immediately recognized that the situation was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. Now four in the cockpit, the instructor took control of the throttles at the request of the Captain who continued attempting control inputs, despite a control column that was clearly inoperative. Working the throttles, the crew managed, by means of power adjustments to their two remaining engines, to steer their damaged aircraft in the most approximate of ways. Plans for an emergency landing were prepared.

In the cockpit, they debated the benefits to landing with, or without, their landing gear deployed. Although they chose to have it in its down position, with no hydraulics, their only choice was to attempt to drop the gear mechanically. Gravity, they hoped, would then pull the landing gear into place and lock it.

A 9,000 foot runway was found for their emergency landing. Controllability, however, remained a riddle that kept the crew at its mercy. With its excess fuel dumped, and its right-turning tendency still taxing the skills of a determined crew, the aircraft drifted into a path that beckoned their use of a shorter 6,600 foot option.

Engine thrust, still their only means to control the aircraft, was now being used for descent. But establishing a balance between their airspeed and rate-of-descent proved to be an equilibrium that was as elusive to harmonize as was the trajectory of their final approach. At almost 250 knots airspeed, and sinking downward at close to 2,000 feet-per-minute, a safe landing would be as much a leap of faith as it would be in the hands of fate.

The crew had no time to react as the aircraft veered right seconds before touchdown. The right wing tip hit the runway. The fuselage impacted and broke shedding parts. There was fire. Sections of the cabin skidded, bounced, rolled, and slid to their eventual stop.

The post-mortem of the crash concluded that a safe landing was virtually impossible. The probability of all hydraulic systems failing as they did was estimated as a near impossibility too. And yet, of the 296 people on board the DC-10 of which this incident is about, 185 survived including the crew in the cockpit. Astounding circumstances lead to outstanding airmanship. Hundreds of lives were saved by the actions of a calm, creative and resourceful crew.