the day I met a real-life hero

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with pastors, theology or Lutheranism. Figured most of you would want to know that.

Twenty-five years ago, United Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, about an hour away from my hometown.

 The Sioux City airport has two gates. The only aircraft that land there are prop jobs.

So when a commercial airliner headed from Chicago to Denver lost an engine and its hydraulic system and crashed at the Sioux City airport, the whole country noticed.

 One hundred and ten of the plane’s 285 passengers died. A crew member was killed.

It was the second worst domestic plane crash the United States had seen.

But a whole bunch of them survived.

Captain Al Haynes was flying that day. Since only two engines were working, and because the hydraulic system was virtually non-existent, he managed to fly the plane by accelerating one engine faster than another, one at a time, to keep the plane level while simultaneously burning off excess fuel.

Continually making right turns, he tried to slow the plane’s speed to ensure a safer emergency landing. He called ahead to the Sioux City airport, asking for EMTs, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles to be ready.

“Whatever you do,” the plane’s recorder quotes him as saying, “keep us away from the city.”

The plane crashed. It started on fire. One wing sliced off. The plane skidded on its belly, rolled over, and finally landed upside down. Passengers began piling out of the flaming plane into a corn field near by.

Folks from my hometown remember seeing one-foot deep gouges in the cement runway.
Everyone talked about it for months.

Captain Al Haynes was, needless to say, kind of a big deal after that. “There is no hero,” he told the Sioux City Journal in 2009 on the anniversary of the crash.

“Just a group of four people who did their job. It was an unusual circumstance but we put our best resources together and did what we thought was best.”

I found this picture while I was home a few weeks ago, taken just weeks after the crash.


My parents were dropping some good friends off at the airport.

I had just turned five.

I don’t remember that day all that much, but I’m pretty sure the conversation went something like:

Dad: Gail, lookit! That’s Al Haynes!

Mom: Oh, wow. You’re . . . um, Jon?

Me: Where’s Dad going?

Dad: *sprinting across airport* Hey! Hey! You! Sir! Are you Capt. Haynes?
Capt. Haynes: Whoa. Um . . . yes?

Dad: Can my daughter get her picture taken with you? Adriane, get over here!

Me: Mom!

Mom: Adriane.

Dad: Get over here!

Me: Daaaaad.

Dad: Stop whining, and stand next to the pilot. Closer. He’s not going to bite you. Get in there! The guy doesn’t have all day.

Me: But . . .

Capt. Haynes: Hi.

Me to Capt. Haynes: Hi.

Capt. Haynes: Is he always like this?

Or maybe not.

I’m sure Dad remembers it better.

But still, that’s me. And Capt. Haynes.

Look at that guy. Cool as a cucumber. Saved 184 lives like it’s no big deal. Standing there with a cranky kid with gigantic bangs and generally messy hair. Humble. Still bearing on his face the cuts and scratches and bruises that undoubtedly ran much deeper, into his very heart and soul. Smiling like he’s my grandpa.

I love a hero.

And that makes this one, well, it makes it a keeper.

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