One of my heroes died on May 7th. His name was Denny Fitch, and I couldn’t have admired him more; I feel shamefully incapable of memorializing him, but fortunately one of my other heroes, Errol Morris, devoted an episode of his outstanding First Person series to Fitch and his role in the crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232, in Sioux City, Iowa.
Fitch was a training-check-airman flying as a passenger, headed home to his wife and children, when the DC-10 suffered a catastrophe from which no airliner had ever recovered: the total loss of all flight-surface controls. The story of how Fitch and the flight crew responded to the task of landing an almost entirely uncontrollable jet airplane with nearly 300 people on board, how they considered landing on interstates, how their ground controllers told them they had no guidance because their situation wasn’t considered survivable, how they felt smashing into the ground, exploding, being thrown about as the plane burst into flames: it is a story only Errol Morris could coax, support, convey with the sort of power it merits.
Largely because of Fitch, 185 aboard survived, a fact one can hardly comprehend when one sees the video of the crash (at the start of the documentary above) or sees photos:
It is a sad story, of course, but it is also —why do I flush to say this?— an inspiring story, and I think of Denny Fitch and Al Haynes and the passengers often, often, often; I do not want to use them, recycle them into metaphor, but I cannot help it; theirs was a kind of crucible of crisis, problem-solving, fear and its overcoming. When I learned today that Fitch had died of brain cancer, I cried and cried. I hate that we vainly personalize others’ deaths this way, but all I mean is that he was really important to me and many thousands of others, and that the basic, attainable, direct, courageous, disciplined spirit he had seems to me more important than nearly all other forms of heroics.
I suppose I simply feel grateful to him, and I recommend Errol Morris’ short documentary highly.