Hero Pilot Faces Life's Turbulence

The name Denny Fitch may not ring a bell these days. But as CBS News national correspondent Dean Reynolds reports, his heroism is emblazoned on anyone who remembers what happened that July day back in 1989.

United Flight 232 was bound from Denver to Chicago when an engine apparently blew up over Iowa. The explosion knocked out one engine and the plane's hydraulics. The explosion left the plane with no steering: right or left, up or down.

"It's almost 100 percent fatal every time it happens," Fitch said. Fitch, a flight instructor, was a passenger on the plane and volunteered his service. He wound up controlling the aircraft by adjusting its speed on a harrowing 44-minute descent to Sioux City.

"I've got 296 lives in my hands, literally," Fitch said. "It's the most overwhelming feeling I've ever had in my life and all I had a chance to do is, I just looked up and I said, 'God help me get this done.'" Of the 296 people on board, 184 miraculously survived.

After flying for a few more years, Fitch felt another calling. He turned to motivational speaking. Fitch was in Chicago this week at a benefit for Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute.

Which brings us to James Chandler, Denny's doctor. Fitch was diagnosed with brain cancer in January. Though the odds are not good, Chandler says don't bet against Denny Fitch. "He's never going to be a loser in this scenario regardless of the outcome."

Fitch has faced death more than most. His father died of the same ailment he has and so did his first wife. But it's not enough to get him down.

"I believe we're going to conquer this damn disease," he said. "You never give up until they throw dirt on you."

Few know that better than Denny Fitch.
  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.

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