Risk Data Analytics

And Then the DC-10 Tail Engine Exploded

In November of 1989, I was flying on a DC-10 from LAX to Chicago with a short layover in Minneapolis on Northwest Airlines.

We were cruising at 39,000 feet above the Rockies when a loud explosion came from the rear.  The plane shuddered and started shaking violently – and it felt like we had stopped in mid-air and started descending at a 45-degree angle – all the while shaking violently.

We all knew we were about to die. 

The passengers in the plane all fell silent – with some whimpering – we were preparing to die. 

We had about 40 seconds.

My first thought: I had broken my left leg less than 6 months previously and had had $20,000 of surgery and physical therapy…   my first thought  —  What a f-ing waste of money!!

My second thought: I wished I had bought more life insurance.

That was my first 2 seconds.

The plane was still shaking violently and careening down at a 45-degree angle.

In the next 38 seconds, I saw a vivid technicolor movie of my life at about a second a year.  From my earliest memory when I was 2 ½ years old in our living room in Mt. Vernon, NY.  Then my early childhood, duck-and-cover drills at school, my first time at the ocean, my first bicycle ride, elementary school, junior high and high school, Cornell, Wharton, 1972 hitch-hiking across Africa, Asia to Japan, my career in NY and then LA… faster and faster.

At 40 seconds, the shaking started to subside and we started to level off. The Captain came on the speakers, in a strong Texas drawl …

“Well, folks, I guess you know that we’ve had a problem, we lost an engine… But we have hydraulics.  I’ve requested emergency clearance to land in Denver.  I’m kind a busy now.  I’ll come back on as we make our approach in Denver.”

Relief!

Three weeks earlier, a United Airlines DC-10 had a similar event, explosion in its tail engine – which had severed its hydraulics.  Their captain had no controls other than the thrust of the left and right wing engines.  He landed hard in Iowa City and over half of the passengers died.

When the pilot said that we had hydraulics, I knew that we were OK – that he had control.

We landed almost routinely, except for all the fire and emergency vehicles we could see waiting… prepared if things didn’t go well.

As I was in the front, I was among the first passengers out of the plane, running the gamut of the local TV cameras, smiling and declining to be interviewed.  My wife saw me on TV…  As I left the jetway, I could see the tail of our plane with a ragged hole in the tail above the engine!  I walked as quickly as I could to United to catch a non-stop to Chicago, which actually got me there only a little later than my originally booked NW flight.

This event had a significant impact on my life.  I wouldn’t fly DC-10s for a year.  I felt an even deeper sense of the preciousness of life. 

I was reminded of this with all the issues the Boeing 737 Max have had recently and how we place our lives in others’ hands all the time.  Sometimes all we can do is manage the risks.

I did keep flying 50-60,000 miles a year.  In fact, a week or so later we flew to India for a 5-week holiday – but on Boeing 747s!

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