The Tragic Fate of the Flight 96
Imagine you need to get from Los Angeles to New York. To make it not so painfully long, you choose to take American Airlines Flight 96, with stopovers in Detroit and Buffalo. But several minutes after your plane leaves Detroit, it happens. Seemingly out of the blue – bang! And a part of the aircraft’s floor is missing right under your feet! What are the chances that you’ll get out of this mess unscathed?
It happened on June 12, 1972. DC-10 that belonged to American Airlines just broke through a thin layer of clouds over Windsor, a Canadian industrial City in the Province of Ontario. Flight 96 was on its regular route from Los Angeles International Airport to LaGuardia Airport in New York through Detroit and Buffalo. The large aircraft lifted off the runway at 7.20 PM, and several minutes later, the cockpit crew relaxed – the takeoff had gone smoothly.
The morning before the tragic flight, the captain of the plane, Bryce McCormick, had already flown the flight’s first leg. That’s why First Officer Peter Paige Whitney was piloting the plane when it took off from Detroit. Captain McCormick was an aviation veteran with more than 24,000 flight hours under his belt. The co-pilot was also an experienced airman who had already accumulated 8,000 flight hours. There were 56 passengers on board the plane (even though the aircraft could carry 206) and 11 crew members – 8 flight attendants, two pilots, and a flight engineer.
All the control panel readings were normal, so Whitney turned on the autopilot. He didn’t have anything to worry about: the radar confirmed that there was no bad weather on the route between Detroit and Buffalo. Therefore, the cockpit crew turned off the ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ signs in the cabin, and passengers wandered off to the bathroom or to chat in the forward lounge.
Cydya Smith, the chief flight attendant on Flight 96, left her seat as soon as she saw the signs off and went to the galley to make coffee. And exactly at that moment, it happened. The woman was suddenly brought down to the floor by a powerful explosion that sounded through the cabin. Paralyzed with horror, the woman saw the galley doors bursting open, huge chunks of ceiling panels falling on the passengers’ heads, and dense white fog filling the cabin. She must have been deafened by the explosion for she couldn’t hear the panicked screams and other commotion. In the cockpit, the pilots were violently jerked backward. Captain McCormick thought for a moment that his plane had just collided with another aircraft midair. The cockpit was rapidly filling with dark gray dust that blinded the men inside and didn’t let them breathe.
But the captain was wrong. The real reason behind the catastrophe was very different but no less treacherous. Unexplainably, a cargo door had been blown out less than 5 minutes after the takeoff, and it left the plane with a gaping hole in its side. But that wasn’t the worst! When the accident happened, it released the pressurized air in a powerful explosion, which tore out a massive floor section right in the passenger cabin. And that’s not all. The hole was right over the gash in the hull of the plane, meaning the passengers seated next to the gap could see the ground thousands of feet below.
Hurricane force winds were sweeping through the cabin. One of the cabin crew members, Beatrice Copeland, was trapped under the collapsed door, unconscious. Another flight attendant was almost sucked out of the airplane and managed to escape this terrifying fate only thanks to her fast reaction. When the floor disappeared under her feet, she realized that right behind her back, there was a lavatory door and her only chance to survive. She managed to get inside and lock the heavy metal door.
Passengers screamed when the plane jerked to the right and dropped several thousand feet down. The cabin crew saw a weird looking fog forming inside the cabin and realized it was the result of the depressurization. With the increasing feeling of dread, they also understood that the oxygen masks weren’t going to drop from their spots. The problem was that the plane hadn’t reached the altitude of 14,000 feet yet, and the masks couldn’t be deployed. That’s why one of the flight attendants grabbed a walk-around bottle of oxygen and started to offer it to the passengers.
But the pilots still didn’t know about the gaping hole in the cabin’s floor. As soon as the visibility became a bit better, the captain only had a couple of seconds to take over the control of the plane. The biggest problem was that the DC-10 had one peculiarity: it didn’t have a backup system that allowed to operate the plane manually if the hydraulic system got knocked out.
At that moment, the people on board the damaged plane still didn’t know how lucky they were, for McCormick wasn’t your usual pilot. Being curious about some particular DC-10 features, the man had spent hours on a flight deck simulator. Among the rest, he repeatedly tested how to save a plane if its hydraulic system failed. As a result, he learned to do it by manipulating the engines in such a way that he could turn the plane or even push its nose up and down.
Anyway, the captain discovered that while wing engines 1 and 3 responded to his commands, engine 2, in the tail, didn’t let its controls be moved. But with the returned wing engine power, the captain had precious minutes to figure out his further course of action. He discovered that the aircraft couldn’t bank by more than 15 degrees in either direction. Just a slightly bigger angle – and the machine would go into a spin. That’s why he decided to boost the thrust on one engine and decrease it on the other to turn the plane and move back toward Detroit.
McCormick understood that his damaged plane would need the priority to land, and he contacted the Detroit airport control tower. ‘It’s American Airlines Flight 96,’ he said. ‘We have an emergency.’ He also warned the controller that they would be descending very slowly and cautiously because he couldn’t really control the direction of the descent.
The biggest challenge McCormick was facing at that moment was to slow the plane down. Approaching the runway at a speed of 184 miles per hour, the plane had little chances to survive the landing. Twenty minutes after Flight 96 left Detroit, the plane returned to the radar of the control tower. First Officer Whitney was monitoring the rate of descent, calling out the numbers, and his voice sounded more alarmed with every passing second. The plane was moving too fast, and the rate was too steep. At first, they were going down at 300 feet per minute. But as they were slowing down, the descent rate was getting higher and higher: 500, 700, and eventually 1,500 feet per minute! The plane wasn’t descending anymore; it was falling! The only thing McCormick could do to save the aircraft and its valuable cargo was to speed up. As soon as he did this, the descent rate increased to 800 feet per minute, but the speed skyrocketed back to 184 miles per hour.
When the plane touched down, it was still moving incredibly fast. But the worst thing about all that was that the aircraft was moving toward the main terminal building. Something had to be done fast; otherwise, the collision couldn’t be prevented. Miraculously, Whitney managed to return the plane to the runway, with two sets of wheels running on the runway and the other two being off. The aircraft finally stopped just 880 feet away from the end of the runway, and the captain ordered to shut down the engines.
The cabin crew helped the passengers evacuate with the help of emergency exits. It took a mere 30 seconds to move all 56 travelers out of the plane. Captain McCormick and First Officer Whitney were the last to leave the plane. All 67 people on board were alive, with only 11 not very serious injuries (9 passengers and 2 crew). The whole accident took only 30 minutes, from the moment the explosion occurred to the miraculous landing.
After they took care of the passengers, the crew members went to look at the hole that had nearly made their plane crash. And there it was: a large cargo door gone as if peeled away by a huge can opener. Nobody could understand how and why it had happened at the height of 11,750 feet in the air. But on the very same day, the missing door was located in a cornfield not far from Windsor, and investigators came to a shocking conclusion. It turned out that the door was closed when the airplane took off, but it wasn’t secured. Naturally, as the plane was ascending, the air pressure inside was increasing, and finally, the cargo door couldn’t withstand this pressure and blew out.
On top of that, do you remember the missing floor section in the passenger cabin? Well, it wouldn’t have happened if there had been pressure relief vents in the floor. They would have allowed the air to flow through, and it wouldn’t have ripped the floor apart. It was a design fail that led to such dramatic consequences.
What did you find the most shocking about this near-crash? Let me know down in the comments! If you learned something new today, then give this video a like and share it with a friend.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below