In 1989 a pilot named Denny Fitch, whose job involved training other pilots how to deal with emergencies, was a passenger aboard United Flight 232. There was a catastrophic explosion in the tail engine of the DC-10 that left the cockpit crew with almost no control of the plane. Fitch volunteered to help and ended up doing so seated on the floor of the cockpit, the only available space.
The situation was almost literally impossible. By adjust fuel to the two remaining engines the pilots were able to make right turns and change altitude, but that was it.
They were in radio contact with air traffic control, but aside from clearing the airspace of other traffic they could lend no aid. No one had ever had to deal with such a situation before, even in a flight simulator.
Since then, of course, the situation has been rerun in numerous simulations with test pilots, airline flight instructors, and others at the controls, trying varying strategies after days of planning. So far none of those simulations — zero — has led to a landing that could have survived by anyone on board.
In short, with their own lives and those of the flight crew and some 300 passengers in their hands, Fitch and the regular flight crew were facing a situation that was almost literally impossible.
Yet they managed a controlled crash landing at Sioux City Iowa, and the majority of the passengers and crew survived. Fitch and his colleagues aboard the flight became some of the most celebrated heroes in aviation history.
Denny Fitch died on Monday of brain cancer. He was 69.