We Heard the Boom and Started Running: The Air National Guard and the Crash of United Flight 232

  • Published
  • By 1st LT Jeremy J. McClure
  • 185 ARW Wing PA
On July 19, 1989 the members of the Iowa National Guard's 185th Tactical Fighter Squadron, now the 185th Air Refueling Wing, based in Sioux City, Iowa were thrust into one of the most dramatic civilian aircraft crashes in history, the crash of United Airlines Flight 232.

185th Air Refueling Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. David Miller was working as crew chief on his A7 fighter on the day of the crash.

"My aircraft had just returned and I was conducting recovery," said Miller. Unbeknownst to him and nearly 300 other members of the unit, United Flight 232 with 285 souls on board was minutes away from the airport and fighting to stay in the air.

United Flight 232, a DC-10, was en route to Chicago from Denver when the fan blade in engine number two came apart. Pieces of the blade ruptured the hydraulic systems on the plane causing a complete failure of the flight systems. The pilot and crew had to use the engine thrust to turn the plane and head to Sioux City, the nearest airport with runways large enough to land.

The aircraft was able to make it to the airport but according to the National Transportation Safety Board report, the right wing struck the ground first and then the right landing gear. Unable to reduce the speed of the aircraft for landing, the impact caused it to break apart sending a fire ball into the air. Pieces of fuselage skidded into the cornfield that surrounded the runway.

Without hesitation, the nearly 300 Guardsman that were on duty, rushed for the disaster including Tech. Sgt. Christine Coons (RET) who was assigned to the finance office that day.

"I heard the boom and ran," said Coons.  

"I don't know who, but somebody picked me up in a truck and we drove to the crash," said Miller. "Everybody and anybody went."

Fire burned from where the right wing had been torn off of the aircraft. Fire crews with the unit's Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting services began spraying foam to suppress the fire and protect the survivors.

"I didn't know what to expect when we got there," said Miller. "There was devastation and bodies everywhere at the crash."

Despite the severity of the impact, 185 people survived the crash, many of whom, walked away from the disaster.

"Sylvia Tsao and I walked out and came to a National Guardsman and he escorted us to a triage area," said Judy Brazell who was a passenger on Flight 232.

"It didn't matter your job or rank that day. There wasn't any hesitation to help as Guardsman," said Miller.

Lauren March-Bush was in seat 32A that day and is very grateful to the Guardsman who responded.

"They rescued me, they brought me out. Without them, I may might not be here today," she said.

For the members of the Air Guard their contribution did not end once the survivors had been rescued. The members of the unit worked for several weeks after the accident, helping recover the remains of the deceased, collecting their belongings, and assisting in cleaning up debris, explained Miller. The meticulous process of cleanup would later prove vital to the subsequent investigation and eventually figuring out what went wrong that day.

"I did whatever was needed of me," said Coons.

On July 19, 2014 members of the 185th , survivors and family members, emergency responders, and community members gathered on the runway where so many lives changed, to mark the 25th anniversary of Flight 232. Only a small portion of the runway remains and is today a part of the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation. The rest of what remains of the old runway is now covered by a farm field. Two grass-covered pot holes near the museum mark the spot where the right landing gear impacted.

"It stays in your memory," said Miller reflecting on the crash. "You keep it in mind during certain training."

A bagpiper played Amazing Grace as the crew and survivors laid a wreath in honor of those who lost their lives in the newly dedicated Outdoor Memorial Garden.

"I am proud to be part of it," said Coons.


For more on the Flight 232 exhibit and Memorial Garden at the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation visit www.midamericamuseum.org.

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