Jan Brown, United Flight 232 The Un-Flyable Plane

On July 19, 1989 United Airlines Flight 232 crash-landed at Sioux City Airport (SUX), Iowa. The incident is one of the most widely recognised crashes in the world.

Dubbed the ‘un-flyable plane’, the scenario has been recreated in flight simulators across the globe. No one has ever made it safely to the ground.

Yet that sunny afternoon, the flight crew managed to get the crippled jet to an airport and miraculously, 185 people survived the horrendous crash.

Onboard Flight 232 was flight attendant Jan Brown. Jan has been a heroine of mine and a complete inspiration following an interview I saw with her for a TV documentary called ‘Black Box’. So you can imagine my excitement when I received an email from the lady herself, telling me she had read my ‘Angels Of The Sky’ story and would like to speak to me.

She went on to relay information about her bravery and heroism that terrible day and also her tireless campaigning since the crash. Her quest has been to get the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to end the practice of allowing children under the age of two to travel unsecured on a parent’s lap without a ticketed seat.

This is her story.

United 232 Jan Brown
Jan Brown

Just Another Day At The Office

Earlier that day at Stapleton International Airport, Denver the United McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 sat on the blistering tarmac, ready to fly to Philadelphia via Chicago O’Hare. Onboard eight cabin crew members prepared the cabin, led by veteran Chief Flight Attendant Jan Brown. In the flight deck, Captain Al Haynes, First Officer William Records and Flight Engineer Dudley Dvorak went through their various pre-departure checklists.

Waiting to board were 285 passengers, including 52 children, whose families were taking advantage of United’s ‘Children’s Day,’ where tickets only cost a penny. Also travelling that afternoon was an off duty United DC-10 training captain, Denny Fitch, taking a ride home to see his family.

Little did he know that in a few hours, his skills in the cockpit would save the lives of so many.

United 232
United Airlines DC-10-10, N1819U. The aircraft involved in the accident.

The aircraft took off at 14:09 (CDT) and the crew quickly got to work setting up the service for the little over two-hour flight to Chicago. All was running smoothly as the wide-body jet cruised at 37,000 feet.

Bleeding To Death

Suddenly at 15:16, a loud bang was heard towards the rear and the whole aircraft shook violently. Passengers and crew immediately thought a bomb had exploded and braced themselves for the worst. In the flight deck, the pilots were bombarded with warning bells and lights. The auto-pilot disengaged and they noticed that the number two tail-mounted engine was malfunctioning.

First Officer Records took control while Haynes and Dvorak began to shut down the damaged engine. While running through their procedures, they realised the aircraft was veering to the left. Records attempted to bring the plane back to level flight. But no matter how hard he turned the control column, the lumbering DC-10 would not respond. As Dvorak checked his engineering panel, the shocking truth dawned on them.

The explosion had severed all three hydraulic lines, which met in the tail and hydraulic fluid was leaking into the atmosphere. The aircraft was literally bleeding to death.

Now dangerously close to becoming inverted, Haynes and Records held the control column hard over to the left. But there was no response. The decision was made to use the two wing-mounted engines to level the plane, increasing power to the left and decreasing to the right. They called United’s maintenance facility, but as a total loss of hydraulics was deemed ‘virtually impossible’ no procedures or guidelines were in place. They were on their own.

In the cabin Jan and the rest of her crew were still blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama. She explained….

“Shortly before the 232 crash, my girlfriend and I were discussing what we would do in a situation such as United 811, where the cargo door had ripped off and taken out a section of business class passengers and seats and only the flight attendants in that area knew what had occurred. My friend said she would go to her jump-seat, buckle up and hang on. That is exactly what I did immediately after our engine exploded as we did not know what had happened, but if it was a decompression, I did not want to be sucked out”.

Preparing The Cabin

After a few moments, she realised the aircraft had not suffered a decompression and began to make her way to the front. She calmed and reassured passengers as she went while the other crew began to stow away the galley equipment and trolleys. When she arrived on the flight deck, she could sense something was seriously wrong. Captain Haynes informed her that they had lost the number two engine and all hydraulic fluid, rendering the aircraft virtually un-flyable. He told her that they would be diverting to Sioux City Airport (SUX), and she should prepare the cabin for an emergency landing.

United 232.
An image of N1819U taken shortly before impact. Even though the image is poor quality, damage can clearly be seen to the tail and right horizontal stabiliser.

As Jan returned to brief her crew, she passed off-duty Captain Fitch, who sensed the seriousness of the situation just by the look on her face. Fitch got the attention of another Flight Attendant, Jan Murray and offered his services before being taken to the flight deck. As the DC-10 was now only flyable using the two wing-mounted engines, he took control of the throttles, allowing Haynes and Records to continue to try the control yoke.

Jan and her crew had forty minutes to prepare the cabin. Passengers sat in emergency exit rows were briefed on how to open and operate the doors, exits were pointed out and all passengers were made to adopt the brace position. She later spoke of the ‘pin drop silence’ throughout the cabin and her dry mouth as she and her colleagues secured equipment and ran through their emergency drills.

Finally, they prepared the four passengers travelling with ‘lap children’ infants under two. In America, no infant seat-belts are provided for children who are not in an approved child safety seat as it isn’t a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation. In training, crew were taught to tell parents to place the child at their feet and provide the passenger with blankets and pillows to buffer the impact. Jan went on to say that “Something that seemed so plausible in emergency training class seemed ludicrous in a real-life crisis”.

Disaster Strikes

Now only able to make right-hand turns, the DC-10 continued its steady descent towards SUX but was approaching dangerously fast. In an attempt to slow the aircraft, its landing gear was lowered, using gravity to pull down the wheels and lock them into place. They were now just minutes away from touchdown. The shorter of SUX’s two runways (22) was in sight, the cabin was prepared and secure, and they were confident they would make it to the airport.

But as they crossed the threshold, the nose of the aircraft dropped, and it began to veer to the right. There was no time for the crew to react. The massive DC-10’s right-wing hit the runway and the fuselage slammed into the ground, spilling fuel which ignited immediately. The tail section broke off, and the body of the plane bounced several times down the runway, shearing off the engines and landing gear before rolling over and sliding to a halt in the cornfield to the right of the runway. The whole horrendous impact was caught on camera by news crews who had heard of the unfolding emergency.

Thankfully, as the aircraft had made it to the airport, emergency services were on the scene immediately. Many thought there would be no survivors because of the severe nature of the crash.

However, as they approached the wreckage, they were stunned to see people emerging from the cornfield. One rescuer spoke of how he thought a school party had been on the airfield when the plane had crashed. But this was no school party.

Miracle Survivors

Miraculously, 125 of the 296 people on board suffered only minor injuries. Thirteen even walked away unharmed.

United 232.
An aerial view of the crash site, showing the path the aircraft took as hit smashed into the ground.

A total of 111 people, including one Cabin Crew member, died in the disaster. Some were killed instantly from the severity of the initial impact. Many died due to smoke inhalation from the subsequent fire that engulfed the aircraft.

In the flight deck, Haynes, Records, Dvorak and Fitch had also survived the crash. But rescuers initially ignored the cockpit, as it was completely unrecognisable. Thirty-five minutes later, the emergency services discovered the debris and the four pilots, severely injured but alive. After many months of recovery, all four returned to flying for United.

United 232
Flight Crew of United 232 From left : Capt. Alfred Haynes, First Officer William Records, Second Officer/Flight Engineer Dudley Dvorak and Capt. Dennis Fitch.

Jan’s Story

Brown passed out after the “Unbelievable smash to earth”. She explained:

“I knew there was nothing I could do at that point and when we rolled over, I went in to a deep unconsciousness that I believe saved my life, as this is when the flash fire engulfed me. The cotton and wool uniform protected me except that my nylons melted to my ankles causing second and third degree burns. I had switched to pants only a few years before as I felt they were safer for our job. Talk about good guardian angels!”.

When she finally came to, Jan was hanging upside down in what little was left of the aircraft cabin. Ignoring the pain and fear, she began assisting the remaining passengers to escape through the broken fuselage, including an elderly couple who she firmly but gently hurried along so others could evacuate. Thick black smoke was now engulfing the cabin. She could do nothing more and left the burning plane to help those who had already escaped.

United 232.
Rescue workers tend to the injured after the crash.

The first passenger she came across was the mother of a 22-month-old boy, Sylvia Tsao. Jan had initially comforted Sylvia shortly after the engine had exploded. She was now headed back towards the smoking wreckage to find her son. Jan stopped her telling her it was too dangerous. She tried to reassure the mother that the rescue workers would find him, but she was inconsolable and yelled: “You told me to put my son on the floor, I did, and he’s gone”

Jan spoke of how she was feeling no physical pain until this point, clearly in a state of shock. But this emotional encounter jolted her back to reality as she responded, “That was the best thing to do; that was all we had”.

United 232.
As the aircraft hit the ground it broke into three pieces, including the massive tail section seen here.

But Sylvia never found her son, Evan Tsao. As the plane smashed into the ground, she lost grip and he was thrown around the cabin like a rag doll. He later died of smoke inhalation and was found towards the aircraft’s rear. 

Jan had suffered various burns and counted herself lucky to be among the survivors. She too returned to flying some months later but was haunted by Sylvia Tsao’s words. “I guess it wasn’t my time. I still had things to do,” Brown said back in 1999. “I guess someone had to be Evan’s voice”.

Fighting For Change

And that was precisely what she did. After the crash, Jan began lobbying congress and the FAA to introduce child safety seats onboard planes across the USA. She gathered signatures from fellow Flight Attendants and appeared on national news programmes. 

Along with her union, The Flight Attendants Association, they managed to gain full support from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Aviation Consumer Action Project, the Air Transport Association and the Airline Pilots Association. For years, she tirelessly crusaded to prevent the loss of another innocent child’s life.

In July 1998, Jan Brown hung up her wings and retired as a Flight Attendant, but her campaign continued. Unfortunately, despite her best efforts and massive support, to this day, airlines in the United States are still not required to provide infants under the age of two travelling as ‘lap children’ with any forms of restraint.

As UK Cabin Crew, I take it for granted that we carry infant extension seatbelts to provide to any passenger travelling with an infant.

Jan went on to say:

“That July 19, when not being allowed to go home by the NTSB until they had interviewed us, I paced the floor thinking of what I did or should have done. I finally stopped and asked myself what I could change…..nothing. We cannot control life or death, we can only do our best and own that we do our best, the rest, for me, is in God’s hands”. As for Evan Tsao, “I will grieve for him forever. He inspires me!”.

United 232.
Flight Attendants who aided the victims of Flight 232 pose July 28, 1989 at a news conference in Chicago. From left to right – Georgeanne Del Castillo, Janice Brown, Virginia Murray, Donna McGrady, Susan White and Timothy Owens.

That fateful day Jan and her colleagues followed their training to ensure passengers safety. Her calmness and professionalism went towards saving 183 passengers and crew, many of whom walked away without a scratch.

Jan Brown is a true heroine. Her actions that day and subsequent lobbying for changes to legislation is a testament to her passion for the Flight Attendant role.

I would also like to give a special mention to Captain Denny Fitch, who unfortunately passed away on May 7, 2012 at his home at St. Charles, Illinois after battling brain cancer. His skill, bravery, and professionalism helped the other three flight crew members get the aircraft to Sioux City and save countless lives.

Used for - United 232
Chief Flight Attendant Jan Brown and Captain Denny Fitch, who both returned to flying after the crash.

For more incredible tales of the heroes and heroines of our industry head over to our ‘Angels Of The Sky’ section.

© confessionsofatrolleydolly.com by Dan Air.

16 thoughts

    1. I recently met Jan. I see her weekly. I can provide her with your information if you like. After speaking to her about this experience, I began searching the internet about this crash. Amazing!

    2. I was just wondering how I could get in contact with the wonderful Jan Brown. I would love to meet her and tell her that she is wonderful. I wish that I could have met The flight crew but just as important is Jan Brown. The stories that I have heard her tell was almost to much to be able to comprehend unless we were there. She describes the moment when she thought that she was going to die and it was the most surene moment of a lifetime and there was no pain, no fear, just a complete acceptance that there was God and this is how that I’m going to die. This was a very powerful statement she described and how peaceful with no fear. What a powerful woman and she is a great human, the way she talks and the way she cares for other people. She can be my spokeswoman anytime. I would love to get to connect with someone who was on this flight. Please, if anybody knows her whereabouts please help me find her so I can meet her and humever may do so I hope too meet you also to thank you in person. I don’t need famous celebrities to meet to make me feel good but, I need people like the entire flight 232 manifest. Thank you and talk to you soon I hope. Love you all.

  1. It’s crazy to think that in these days something as simple as a seatbelt is still not a requirement when they have been proven again and again to save lives. But this crew did an amazing job of staying calm under immense pressure and doing the best job they knew how to do.

  2. Yes ALL the crew were heroes. And now United and American have changed their nonrev rules for retirees so they go after every active employee. It makes me sick. God bless them all!

  3. Double seatbelts are MORE dangerous for lap babyies than having them loose in the adult’s lap. I wrote the CAA and asked them why they used these dangerous devices that essentially turn babies into air bags. In forward impact, the adult’s torso would come down and crush the child. The CAA responded that it was safer for OTHER passengers to keep the baby from flying through the cabin and injuring someone else.

    So please don’t imply, as in this article, that a double seat belt would have helped. Lap babies at least have a chance of surviving if loose in the adult’s lap. Attached, they can be crushed.

    The only way to fly safely with a baby is to have them in a car seat. It’s awful in the U.K. Where rear-facing seats aren’t allowed and parents’ rights to use their own airline-approved car seats aren’t guaranteed. At least U.S. Parents can buy a seat for their baby and use a car seat onboard. British carriers actually force under 6 months to be lap babies (and are instructed to use those dangerous “belly belts”) and firced to use the less safe forward facing position for car seats.

    Where is the safety logic in that??

  4. Air New Zealand carries extension seat belts – both to protect infants and provide for larger pax. Do US carriers still not have these? Incredible. Kind regards to all. Margaret – 45 years long haul flight attendant

  5. Everyone in my little town of SeaTac, Wa know all the Haynes family. All very nice people. One of Al’s sons has died as has his Al’s wife. His daughter had cancer and needed bone marrow that was costing more than they could afford. The survivors, when they found out, raised the money in just days. The daughter is alive and well.

  6. One of the fatalities was a United senior flight attendant off duty, just hitching flight back to his home base in Philadelphia. He and hîs partner were customers, two of the nicest people you’d ever get to know. One day his partner showed up without him. So I asked where he was. Thats when his partner said he died at Souix City. He was a tall slim dark haired guy about 27-35(?) of Portuguese descent. It’s still heartbreaking to recall so many years later.

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