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CHICAGO (AP) â¿¿ Airline pilot Denny Fitch was hitching a ride home on a DC-10 in 1989 when heard an explosion somewhere in the back of the jet. He soon made his way to the cockpit to see if the crew needed help.
Inside, he found three men desperately trying to keep the giant plane in the air after losing all hydraulic power needed to control direction and altitude. Fitch took a seat in the only space available â¿¿ the floor â¿¿ and helped operate some of the only equipment still working â¿¿ the wing engines â¿¿ to try to land the aircraft carrying nearly 300 people.
Fitch, who died Monday at 69, used everything he knew about flying to confront an emergency that engineers never imagined could happen to a modern jetliner.
When the crippled plane crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, more than half of the passengers survived â¿¿ one of the most admired life-saving efforts in aviation history.
After the accident, aviation experts conducted simulations in which test pilots and trainer pilots tried to land similarly stricken aircraft.
"I'm not aware of any that replicated the success these guys had," said Mike Hamilton, a United pilot who flew with Fitch. None of the simulator pilots were able to make a survivable landing.
"Most of the simulations never even made it close to the ground," Hamilton said.
More than two decades later, the teamwork of Fitch and the others on the flight deck is still a model for the industry.
"To be one of those pilots, they are all heroes, and he played in instrumental role in saving all those lives," said Susan Callander, a flight attendant on United Flight 232. "What they all did, all working together as a team, now for the rest of history will be part of the training" of flight crews.