Flight 232 by Laurence Gonzales

Flight 232 is an extremely well researched, compelling, and especially harrowing story of the ill fated United Airlines Flight 232 in 1989. The reason that flight merits an entire book has to do with the sheer amount of survivors on what should have been a non survivable catastrophic engine failure situation. As well, it was a watershed event leading to the development of many modern safety practices as well as crash response procedures and investigation. It’s also notable for laws that did not (and perhaps should have) been changed about airline safety.


Flight 232 was an afternoon flight originating in Denver and scheduled to land in Chicago in 1989. On a clear day with no weather conditions, the DC10’s rear engine (mounted in the tail) exploded, severing all hydraulic lines in the process. With no steering and very little control of the plane, the aircraft was heroically kept aloft for 45 minutes until it eventually crashed into a horrific fireball on a small airport runway. Amazingly, 184 of the 296 passengers survived.

Author Gonzales, a commercial pilot, uses meticulous research to give a very complete story of the crash. From passengers to crew, hospital workers to ground support, manufacturer reps, radar operators to crash investigators, all provide a very large picture of the airline industry at the end of the 1980s. Inside these 400 packed pages, Gonzales will give us the scope of the issues the plane encountered, the harrowing tales of escape and death, survivor remorse, PTSD not only from the survivors but also the workers and volunteers who had to handle the morgues and hospitals, to those who were near the airport when the plane crashed and ran to help.  The stories are tragic, uplifting, horrifying, intriguing, daunting, and most especially emotive. I don’t think anyone reading this book could be left unaffected.

Most will likely read for the human aspect of the crash. But very detailed descriptions of the metal fatigue issue (from how the metal is made, manufactured, etc.) as well as complex flying technical and physics are also included.  Readers can really read in detail about all aspects of the crash (technical, personal) or choose to hone in on the detective aspects of finding the cause or the experiences of those inside the plane when it went down. For me, I skimmed through the very detailed technical aspects while reading the first time and then went back and spent my time on the physics descriptions at leisure. The people story was far too compelling to stop and suddenly get a physics manual in the middle of their tales.

The only detractor for me was that the book started to switch up very emotional and harrowing scenes with hard science around the middle and through to the end.  I would have liked to see the book broken down into three distinct sections: personal experiences of those involved, the detective work and changes in the industry, and then the hard physics.  It was truly frustrating and annoying to read about a mother going through the crash watching her 2 year old fly through the air – then changing abruptly to 20-30 pages of metallurgy and titanium anomaly detection techniques before we find out what happened to the 2 year old and if he survived.

Those who are faint of heart with blood and gore descriptions would probably want to avoid this book and stick to Air Craft Investigation/Mayday episodes instead.  The book is very thorough and descriptions of injuries/deaths and how the morgue worked right after the crash are especially horrifying. As well, keep in mind that the plane was full of young children due to a promotion from the airline – most with no seats to be belted into.

I have seen a lot of crash documentaries/tv shows and nothing compares to what I read in this book. It wasn’t just the terrifying crash itself that was harrowing – it was the account of everyone who had to deal with what happened or what they saw that day. Most people never realize that someone has to work with horribly disfigured bodies strewn across an airport and find ways to quickly identify, process, and preserve those bodies for relatives – all while others are saving the injured, placating shocked relatives and media, or trying to find out exactly what happened to the plane – so it doesn’t happen again.

This particular air crash really gives all aspects of what happens when a plane makes an ‘unscheduled landing.’ Thorough, well documented with resources listed, and with interviews of nearly everyone still alive connected in any way to the crash, whether in Japan or San Diego, the author has done an impressive job.  The book contains 16 color images but I recommend also checking sites or videos online to see the people/crash.

Reviewed from an ARC.

This entry was posted in ARC, Book Reviews, non fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Flight 232 by Laurence Gonzales

  1. Thank you for this great review. Just a slight correction: The book (not the ARC) contains 16 pages of full-color photographs never before seen in public.

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