Archive for November 30th, 2010

“I’ve Never Gone to Work…I’ve Only Gone to Fly”

The last words of Denny Fitch, subject of the best of Errol Morris’s First Person interviews.  If you’ve never heard of Denny Fitch, watch this interview, and you’ll never forget him.

Believe it not, this was a success.

In 1989, Fitch was a check pilot. dead-heading home to Chicago from Denver, where he had been testing the emergency-readiness of other flight crews, when the hydraulics on the DC-10 went out. Well, “went out” wasn’t quite right: they were severed, all three systems, at the single point of failure, when the tail engine more or less exploded.

When Fitch went up front to help the crew, he joined its battle to do what no other airplane crew had ever done – survive a total failure of their plane’s hydraulic systems. As Fitch points out, there are no cables on a DC-10, because they wouldn’t do any good. The large control surfaces would simply overwhelm the strength of any one man. Essentially, the only control that the crew had over the plane was through the right and left engine power.

Fitch guides us through the crew’s battle to stabilize the plane’s flight, decide where to try to land it, and the eventual crash-landing through which 2/3 of the crew and passengers lived. He dead-pans his way through some of the decisions the crew had to make: “It is better to land in a corn field with the gear up or down? There’s not a lot of test data on that.” He comes across as a thoroughly serious, but likable guy, who can simplify even complex aeronautical problems.

Morris’s pacing is also superb, alternating between the tension of the cockpit and the stakes of success or failure, and the personal and technical background needed to tell to the story. I sent the link to the first segment to my Dad last night, and he ended up watching the whole thing, beginning to end. I suspect you will, too.

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