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Little Things That Can Change History – Tribute to Lt. Col. Dennis Nielsen

Air travel has been the safest mode of transport the world over for decades.  It is uncommon to hear of fatal accidents in the aviation...

Air travel has been the safest mode of transport the world over for decades. 

It is uncommon to hear of fatal accidents in the aviation world. And in occasions when such fatalities occur, they are spread far in-between. One of the standout issues about air crashes is that, whenever it occurs there are very slim chances that one can survive. When a plane falls to the ground, it is usually engulfed in raging flames of fire, at the behest of tons and tons of aviation gas. The wreckage is normally spread over miles in broken pieces, as a clear testimony of the impact and fatality of the accident.

On July 19, 1989, high above the cornfields of Iowa, United States of America; an engine explosion rocked United Airlines Flight 232, crippling the hydraulic system that governed the airliner’s controls. The flight crew was faced with the challenge of trying to land a marginally controllable plane. The flight was flying from Denver to Chicago; after which it would continue on to Philadelphia. It was being operated by a McDonnell Douglas DC-10; registration N1819U. Captain Alfred “Al” Haynes, First Officer William Records and Flight Engineer Dudley Dvorak were manning the flight deck. On board were 285 passengers.

Having declared an emergency to Minneapolis Center, flight 232 was directed to Sioux City’s Gateway Airport located 70 miles away. The DC-10 attempted an emergency landing at Gateway Airport which ended in fatal circumstances; with some pieces breaking off while others slid to a stop in an adjacent cornfield, engulfed in flames.

The sheer ferocity of the crash made it hard to believe there would be any survivors. But as rescue crews approached the wreckage they were astonished to see some people emerging from the smoke. Of the 296 people on board; 184 survived the crash, which was an incredible number given the aftermath of the fatal plane crash. The four pilots survived as well, found alive, though severely injured, in the crushed cockpit section about a half an hour after the crash.

About three months after the accident, Janice Sorenson, a farmer in Alta; was harvesting her corn crop when the combine she was operating met some resistance. She went to investigate and found a large portion of the damaged General Electric fan disk, which broke off the plane; partially buried in the ground. Other pieces of the fan disk were later found on the Sorenson farm.

The Little Thing That Became Big:
There are many things that still provides the memories of flight 232. One of those iconic moments is the timing of Lt. Colonel Dennis Nielsen, who was on duty that day, carrying a young survivor; Spencer Bailey, to safety following the crash. Nielsen was just one committed man on duty, and he was not aware that there were some cameras that were flashing through the accident scene. He just did his job innocently, not knowing that one image of him that was to be captured on that day, as he carried young Spencer in his arms, will become the symbol of the bravery in the aftermath of this flight forever. His heroism was magnified the world over; despite his continued insistence that his was just a normal call for duty. Spencer has now grown to become a man in his own right; but his life will always be associated with that crucial timing by Lt. Col. Nielsen. Their lives have been immortalised in many museums and magazines the world over; all curled up in that iconic photo.

The Biggest Life Lesson: 
whatever you are meant to do in life, do it with all your heart and commitment. It could be interpreted as small in your own world; but in someone’s world it could change their course of history. Lt. Col. Nielsen could just have done the “normal” call of duty, and avoided the raging flames and the potential danger posed by aviation gas of flight 232. By so doing, his actions could also have condemned the life of a young Spencer to an excruciating end in those raging flames. He would still have lived his life, most probably without even knowing that a young life was lost that could have been saved through his hands. But he went that extra mile and got immortalised in the annals of history.

Be willing to go an extra mile in life. You never know what that can turn out to be.

Tapiwa Zuze