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Young Air Controller Recalls Recalls Moments of Hope and Horror

August 18, 1989 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Only three months into his job as a fully trained air traffic controller at Sioux City, Iowa, 27-year-old Kevin Bachman broke into tears after the fiery crash of United Airlines Flight 232 last month.

But a tape of his radio conversations with pilot Al C. Haynes, released Friday, show only a calm, cool intensity during the 36 minutes they struggled together to find ″something solid″ on which to land the out-of-control airliner.

Of the 296 people aboard the DC-10, 111 were killed when the plane en route from Denver to Chicago and Philadelphia crashed and burst into a ball of fire July 19 while trying to make the emergency landing.

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That 185 survived is widely credited to the performance of Haynes, Bachman and coordinated rescue-reponse efforts on the ground at the airport and in Sioux City. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner gave Bachman a departmental award for outstanding performance Friday for his handling of the aircraft.

Listening to the tape, which was released by the Federal Aviation Administration, Bachman remembered his thoughts alternating between pessimism and optimism at various points in the drama.

″There was some doubt at first, because basically he didn’t have any control of the aircraft,″ Bachman said, referring to Haynes.

Hopes rose on occasion, such as when the DC-10 halted its rapid descent and maintained the same altitude for more than a few seconds. And Bachman recalled the sense of elation in the FAA’s flight control center when the plane came into sight.

One minute and 25 seconds later, the plane burst into flames upon touching down and began cartwheeling down an unused runway.

″Right after it happened, I had to turn away, because I didn’t think anbody would come away from it,″ Bachman said. ″And then I went downstairs and cried.″

He spent the next several hours reliving every detail of the 36 minutes from the time that FAA controllers in Minneapolis transferred the agency’s control of the flight to him with a terse, ″Sioux City, got an emergency for you,″ until the crash.

″You just try to wonder what you could have done differently,″ Bachman said. ″The first couple of days afterward, I didn’t sleep at all.″ Later, he concluded he would not have done anything differently.

According to the tape, it was a 3:23 p.m. CDT when air traffic controllers in Minneapolis first notified Sioux City that a stricken jetliner 40 miles away was headed for it.

″I’ve got a United aircraft coming in, lost number two engine, having a hard time controlling the aircraft right now. He’s out of 29,000 (feet altitute) ... and descending to Sioux City right now,″ the Minneapolis controller said. ″...As soon as I get comfortable, I’ll ship him over to you and he’ll be in your control.″

Three minutes later, Haynes and Bachman were having their first conversation.

″Okay, so you know we have almost no control ability, very little elevator and almost no aileron,″ Haynes told Bachman. ″We are controlling the turns by power .... We can only turn right, but we can’t turn left.″

At 3:32, Haynes tells Bachman the DC-10 has no hydraulic fluid, knocking out virtually all of its maneuverability controls in its spiraling descent round and round Sioux City.

″I have serious doubts about making the airport,″ Haynes said, with a gasp in his voice. ″Have you got some place near there that we might be able to ditch? Unless we get control of this airplane, we’re going to put it down, wherever it happens to be.″

Bachman repeately asks how many people are aboard the aircraft.

″Stand by,″ Haynes replied at one point.

Twenty seconds later, Haynes tells the controller: ″Two hundred ninety-two souls on board United 232.″

At 3:43 p.m., Bachman asks Haynes if he can maintain the plane’s altitude.

″Negative,″ Haynes replied. ″We don’t have it. We are better, that’s all.″

At 3:51 p.m., Bachman, recalling a mid-air crash over San Diego in 1978 tells Haynes, to ″widen out just slightly to your left ... to take you away from the city.″

″Whatever you do, keep us away from the city,″ Haynes radios back.

Two minutes later, Bachman advises Haynes about a four-lane highway where the plane could touch down.

″Okay, we’ll see what we can do here,″ Haynes replies. ″We’ve already put the gear down and we’re going to have to put it down on something solid, if we can.″

At 3:57 p.m., Bachman says, ″Ah, United 232, if you cannot make the airport, sir, there is an interstate that runs north to south to the east side of the airport. It’s a four-lane interstate.″

″We’re just passing it right now,″ Haynes responds. ″We’re going to try for the airport.″

At 3:58 p.m., Haynes to Bachman: ″Have runway in sight. We’ll be with you very shortly. Thanks a lot for your help.″

Bachman gives Haynes figures on wind speed and direction and tells him, ″You’re cleared to land on any runway.″

Haynes chuckles, breaking the tension for a brief moment. He quips, ″You want to be particular, and make it a runway, huh?″

Bachman tells Haynes about a runway on the same path as the plane that has been closed because of lack of use.

″We’re pretty much lined up on this one, or we think we’ll be,″ Haynes says.

At 3:59 p.m., Haynes asks Bachman for the length of the unused runway and is told it is 6,600 feet. He’s also told assembled rescue vehicles are being cleared from it.

″At the end of the runway, its just a wide open field,″ Bachman says. ″So, sir, the length won’t be a problem.″

Four seconds later, Haynes replies: ″OK″

Eight seconds later - at 45 seconds after 3:59 p.m. - a ground proximity warning horn on the plane goes off. A voice says, ″Pull up, pull up.″

The tape goes silent, United 232 is down.