Editorial: Take moment to remember pilot’s heroics

In an age when remotely piloted aircraft are the hot topic, we welcomed this week's reminder to air travelers and their families that pilots on board commercial aircraft can mean the difference in surviving crises.

We are not talking about the miraculous Hudson River landing in New York City in 2009, where US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made a pluperfect water landing after bird strikes on takeoff from nearby LaGuardia Airport disabled the engines. All 155 passengers and crew were rescued as the plane floated downriver.

The event we refer to is the 1989 runway crash in Sioux City, Iowa.

The entire flight crew performed heroically that July day nearly 23 years ago. Their United Airlines jet lost all hydraulic power on a flight from Denver to Chicago. Leading their courageous efforts to keep the plane from losing control and crashing was a passenger — United pilot and flight instructor Dennis Fitch.

He wasn't on the crew that day, but a passenger. When the emergency arose and the control issues threatened a crash at any moment, Fitch joined the cockpit crew.

Sitting on the floor, he helped troubleshoot the problem and crafted procedures to keep the plane aloft as long as possible.

The decision came to land away from a large metro area like Chicago and so they landed at Sioux City. Controls failed then and the plane cartwheeled down the runway. But without the good work of Fitch, who died Monday of brain cancer at age 69, and his team, 185 of the 296 people on board that day would not have survived.

That only 111 people died that day was miraculous.

That miracle, like that one in the Hudson River 20 years later, only occurred because Fitch and the crew members didn't panic and executed the survival steps as flawlessly as possible.

And the good work they performed that day has since helped countless air crews around the country learn what teamwork can mean when a midair crisis occurs.

Take a moment to remember Dennis Fitch and reflect on his level-headed, brave example.

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