WW85 October 2, 2019: Captain Al Haynes… A Reluctant Hero

Wednesday Wisdom Series October 2, 2019

October 2, 2019

Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

Captain Al Haynes... A Reluctant Hero


He told the group that every time he landed an aircraft, he was carrying 112 invisible people.
-Al Haynes, Captain, United Airlines Flight 232, July 19, 1989

    Captain Al Haynes died on August 25, 2019, just a few days shy of his eighty-seventh birthday. I had many opportunities to speak with Captain Al during the thirty years that he lived after the crash of United Airlines Flight 232. On the second anniversary meeting of the passenger and family survivors in Denver, CO, I met Captain Haynes for the first time.   
    During the summer of 1991, I was contacting passenger survivors of six fatal crashes that occurred during 1987-1989, as part of my dissertation study.  UAL Flight 232 fell into the criteria required for inclusion in the study. One of the 232 passenger survivors contacted me and told me about the meeting in Denver. He knew I was interested in meeting survivors and thought my research project would benefit by attending the second anniversary meeting. I recognized the value immediately this two-year anniversary meeting was providing those who attended. I experienced feelings of envy—though I am not proud to admit it. My own experience as a family survivor from the Delta Air Lines Flight 191 crash back in 1985, did not involve any immediate, nor long-term interaction with survivors.   
    When Captain Haynes addressed the group, I remember being deeply moved by his humility. As he looked around the room at a very large group, he could not contain his emotions. Tears were visible when Captain Al began his talk. He told the group that every time he landed an aircraft, he was carrying 112 invisible people. Referring to the 111 passengers and one crew member who died in the crash. His sincerity and reverence for those who perished as well as the survivors and families left behind, was unquestionable. And as always, Captain Al gave credit to all of the crew members, both front and back, as equally responsible for the high number of survivors that day. When he talked about the accident, as was his style, he praised the emergency responders for their bravery in saving lives in the crash.   
    When I learned that Al had died a few weeks ago, I looked back in Handbook for Human Services Response[1] and re-read quotes from my interviews with him. Following are his own, personal memories of the crash itself.   
        The engine blew. I do not remember the vibration, but later the 
        co-pilot reminded me that the aircraft shook so violently that it was         nearly impossible for me to read the instruments to determine that we         had lost the number 2 engine. (I asked why the aircraft was         porpoising, which passengers described after the engine exploded). 

        The aircraft loses speed. The nose goes down and up to find speed.         Because the aircraft had lost an engine, it continued to porpoise as         long as it was in the air which was 45 minutes. I never thought we         would crash. I never believed we would lose the airplane. I had some         doubts about how we would get to the airport and how we would stop,         but I never doubted that we would get there.   

        (I asked Al which pilot told the tower to keep them away from their         city? Al said it was he.) I was remembering crashes where the aircraft         went down in populated areas and people on the ground were killed.         Crashes like PSA over San Diego where all of the people in the jet         were killed and all the people on the small airplane that collided with         the jet were killed, and people on the ground died as well. All of my         concentration was taken up with what we were doing in the air. I had         no idea what the results might be when we got to the ground. A pilot’s         biggest fear is loss of an airplane, and that is where all our energy in         the cockpit was focused that day.   

        Although I don’t remember being afraid, I must have had some         concerns about the results of the flight that day because I would later         learn from the cockpit voice recorder that I had said, “Well mom         (talking to my wife) we may not make it to the tournament,” 
        referring to the little league game, where I was scheduled to assist.   

        I remember telling them (the passengers) that I wasn’t going to kid         them; it was going to be a hard landing. I told them to listen to the         announcements and then I wished them good luck.   

        Dudley made the last announcement. He said, “Brace, brace!” just         prior to impact.   

        We came in a little left. The right-wing dipped down. I remember         thinking about whether or not we would make the runway. I heard a         whoosh sound. And then I came to in the wreckage. I remember         talking to Bill, the co-pilot. I remember parts of our conversation. I         remember that Dudley was on top of me. I told him that he needed to         lose some weight. We laughed. It was about thirty minutes before the         emergency responders found us.   

        I had a bruised sternum; one of my ears was almost cut off. There         were about 92 stitches in my scalp as I had cuts on my head. I had a         concussion and began to have dizzy spells immediately, which lasted         two to three weeks. My doctors told me to start flying when I felt 
        like it. I started flying again within about three months.   

        In the beginning, Al had survivor guilt. He felt initially that somehow,         he had been at fault. He had trouble accepting that people had 
        died in an airplane that he was flying. Talking it out helped him         conclude that it was not his fault. After 25 hours of therapy, 
        Al realized that he and the other pilots had done the best they could.          
        Al came to accept the randomness of who lived and who died 
        that day. Following are his comments on this: 
        I believe in luck. I am not very spiritual. But I know this— something         took that airplane to Sioux City and determined the fate of the people         onboard— we just helped. 

 [1] Coarsey, C. V. Handbook for Human Services Response, (2004).


    As with all survivors, coming to terms with losses becomes the path that allows us to move from the emotional level of our energy system into the wisdom phase. Wisdom occurs from the balance of head and heart—and that certainly describes Captain Al. I could see this clearly in my interview with him, thirteen years after the crash.  

Losing a child is the worst loss of all. No parent wants to outlive a child.
    Captain Al's son died in 1996, in a motorcycle accident. He shared his feelings about this loss, which mirrored those of other parents who have lost children. 
        Losing a child is the worst loss of all. No parent wants to outlive a child. The only good thing we can say about losing a thirty-seven-year-old son is that at least we had him in our lives for thirty-seven-years. 

Darlene died, July18, 1999, the day before UAL232’s twentieth anniversary.
    In 1999, Al's wife of forty years, Darlene, died from a perforated colon. Darlene and Al were planning on attending the wedding of a young man who survived the crash. The wedding date was close to the twentieth anniversary of the accident. As Darlene's condition deteriorated, everyone feared that she might die on the anniversary. Looking back, Al said that missing the survivor’s wedding would have meant as much to Darlene as the anniversary of the crash. 
    At the thirteen-year mark, Al felt that he was "lucky" to be allowed to live beyond the crash date. It allowed him to spend the rest of his life educating others on the value of teamwork, the need to share about traumatic events in our lives, and countless other lessons learned from a life well-lived. Al’s last flight before retirement was August 26, 1991. Except for one pilot, the entire crew flew together in honor of Al and all those whose lives were forever changed by UAL Flight 232. The thousands of aviation employees and others around the globe who heard one of his talks, certainly heard at least one major theme— “Please don’t call me a hero.” But of course, he is, and his legacy is with all of us who met him or heard him present.

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