What does it take to save over 100 lives when the plane you’re flying loses control?


On July 19, 1989 United Airlines Flight 232 was on its way from Denver to Chicago when the controls stopped working.

All three hydraulic systems had given out.

When this happens, the engines keep running but you cannot steer.

The chances of all three hydraulic systems failing is so astronomical (literally, 1 in a billion) that there isn’t a page in the emergency manual detailing what to do. But everyone knows what you do next.

You crash.

Denny Fitch wasn’t even the pilot. He was an off-duty training captain who happened to be on board.

Denny Fitch was about to be tested. Denny Fitch was about to become a hero.

And the reason he was able to do it was because Denny Fitch was an expert.


The Story

I’ve posted a great deal on expert behavior. Denny Fitch is a textbook case.

I could recount the event for you but there’s one person who tells Fitch’s story better than anyone: Denny Fitch.

In Errol Morris’ brilliant (but, sadly, short-lived) documentary series First Person, Fitch recounts the events of that day. You can see the whole interview below in 10 minute sections.

Bored by documentaries? Get sleepy during interviews? Don’t worry. This is as gripping as a summer movie while providing great insight into how a highly trained expert thinks.

Set aside some time and check it out.


He didn’t say mom or dad as a baby: he said “plane”

  • Fitch describes taking a plane into the air as a “religious experience.” He says as a baby he said the word “plane” instead of mom or dad. He got dry heaves because he wanted so badly to fly. That’s passion.
  • (4:25) He ran the training simulators. He’d seen it all. He dealt with things that, statistically, you’d never encounter in a lifetime of flying.
  • (7:18 – 9) Listen to his diagnosis of the situation. This isn’t someone who just does his job. He understands the science behind how it works and is able to immediately figure out what happened, Sherlock-Holmes-style, with only a tiny bit of information.


“A DC-10 Must Have Hydraulics”


“In the previous 25 years to this event there never has been a survivable loss of flight controls accident. Nobody’s ever survived.”


“Dear God, I have 296 lives in my hands.


“Did I make the runway?”


“I’ve never gone to work. I’ve only gone to fly.”

Denny Fitch died — of cancer — in May of this year. May he rest in peace.

More on what makes an expert here and here.

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