A Thousand Heroes (Movie review)

Airplane crash drill, with burning school bus posing as wreckage

This is the story of a city fully prepared for any disaster, a commercial airliner which lost all hydraulic systems, an experienced Captain, with almost 300 people on board… brought together on a beautiful day, July 19, 1989. This is A Thousand Heroes, also known as Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232.

Plot summary

The movie starts with what seems to be the air disaster already. Many children lying unconscious on the grass, fire trucks, ambulances, paramedics, all kinds of rescuers and… a burning school bus. This is all one of the numerous safety drills at the Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa. Gary Brown (Richard Thomas), at the head of a multi-resource rescue comitee, has trouble bringing all the members together, especially a key player, fire chief Jim Hathaway (James Coburn). The safety drill, even if showcased by the media as passing with “flying colors”, shows that without proper communication and cooperation, evacuating 300 dead and injured would take over 4 hours. We then see Brown approaching Hathaway in an attempt to get better cooperation from him. The two agree to leave their differences aside and work as a team.

Two years later, United Airlines flight 232, a DC-10, is taxiing to the active runway at Denver Stapleton Airport at 2:09PM Central Daylight Time (CDT), for the flight to Chicago. Capt. Al Haynes (Charlton Heston) flies the aircraft, assisted by First Officer William Records (Carmen Argenziano), and Second Officer Dudley Dvorak (Bruce McGill). After the aircraft reaches its cruising altitude of 37,000 feet, the Captain talks to the passengers over the P.A. Just as a flight attendant (Ayukoe Graham) pops in the cockpit with the food trays, a large explosion is heard and the plane is heavily shaken and almost out of control. It is 3:16PM, CDT.

In the Sioux City Tower: Supervisor Zubinski and Trainee Porter (Tom Everett and Tom O'Brien)

Capt. Haynes realizes he has very marginal control over the aircraft. As he explains to the controller at Minneapolis Center, there is no hydraulic fluid, which means no elevator control, little aileron control, and steering can only be done by changing the throttles of engines 1 and 3. What is happening? The gauges show an immediate drop of hydraulic pressure for engine 2, which just exploded, damaging the accessory drive section of engine 2, which took out the hydraulics for the #2 system. The debris following the explosion damaged all two other systems. Minneapolis Center advises flight 232 that the closest airport with a long enough runway for a DC-10 is Des Moines Airport (170 miles away), but even closer is Sioux Gateway Airport (70 miles away).

Captain Dennis Fitch (Arthur Rosenberg), a flight instructor flying as a passenger, gives a hand to the cockpit crew by controlling the throttles. In the meantime, all the emergency teams are ready at Sioux City, being reminded that “this is not a drill”. Firefighters coming from many communities around Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota and nurses and doctors in the nearby hospitals are immediately alerted. By chance, 285 National Guardsmen are also at the airport, under Lt. Colonel Dennis Nielsen (John M. Jackson). It’s also a coincidence but an intern and a photographer for a local newspaper are at a nearby fire station. They too are rushed to Sioux Gateway Airport.

Assisted by Sioux Gateway’s trainee air traffic controller (Tom O’Brien) and his supervisor (Tom Everett) Capt. Haynes and his crew slowly herd the DC-10 to runway 31, through frequent spiralling turns to the right at uneven altitudes. The rescue teams are ready, parked on runway 22 at Sioux Gateway Airport, ready to act quickly at runway 31. But problems with controls lead the aircraft straight into runway 22. Just in time, the fire trucks and the rescue teams clear the runway.

In the flight deck: F/O Records, Instructor Fitch and Capt. Haynes (Carmen Argenziano, Arthur Rosenberg and Charlton Heston)

Then… the final approach. The final moment. About two minutes before touchdown, the aircraft is perfectly aligned and the air traffic controller clears Haynes to “land on any runway”, to which he responds “You want to be particular and make it a runway!” This causes everyone to chuckle and eases the atmosphere. Unfortunately the perfect alignment doesn’t last. The aircraft tips to the right. If the aircraft had hydraulic systems and was fully operational, it would be easy to correct that or go-around. An amateur video shows the DC-10 approaching the airport, and a TV camera filming the DC-10 which, by then, is a fireball spiralling down the runway.

On that sunny day of July 18, 1989, 111 people died. But thanks to many factors, including the good weather, efficient communications, but above all the readiness of the people in Sioux City, 185 people survived, including Capt. Haynes and his flight crew. Had the DC-10 attempted landing at another airport, would there have been so many survivors? Who knows. Many people made a difference on that day. There truly were A Thousand Heroes.

Appreciation

All I can say is that the movie makes an excellent re-enactment of the event. The scenes are very realistic, the actors are good, particularly Charlton Heston as Captain Haynes. We even recognize “trademarks” of the crash, such as the survivors emerging from the corn fields, the child saying he jumped from the plane as it was “landing”, and Nielsen carrying a very young survivor in his arms. That scene has inspired the memorial statue of the Sioux City crash. One thing that could be either good or wrong is that the passenger cabin is never shown (except among the debris) nor the DC-10 other than in some rare external shots. We never see the reactions of the passengers to this incoming tragedy. This will only come over ten years later, as a National Geographic Seconds From Disaster episode about flight 232.

This great movie gets an 8.5 out of 10.
If you want some good real-life action about an event that proved how cooperation and readiness can save lives, go rent Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232.

Things to notice

Crash landing as filmed by local TV crew

This is the only technical goof I noticed up to now. If you have anything else to add, please let me know.

  • On take-off and initial ascent, DC-10 footage is used, only thing is that the airline changes. On the ground, the DC-10 bears the colors of United, on take-off it’s another airline, probably Pan Am (blue cheatline) and on ascent it’s an American Airlines plane (clearly visible logo on the tail).

The aircraft

It is a McDonnell Douglas DC-10-10 flown by United Airlines, flight number UA232, registration N1819U, from Denver Stapleton to Chicago O’Hare.

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A. 1992. Produced by Helios Productions, World International Network and others. Directed by Lamont Johnson. Starring Charlton Heston, Richard Thomas, James Coburn, Leon Russom, John M. Jackson, Tom O’Brien. Rated PG-13. Also known as Des héros par milliers (French), Katastrophenflug 232 (German).

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2 thoughts on “A Thousand Heroes (Movie review)

    • @sheilamaldonado: If you are referring to Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232, the information appears Under “Specifications”, above the comments box.

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