Gliding into PDX in a Stretch 8

Sunday, December 28, 2008, was the 30th Anniversary of the crash of a United Air Lines DC-8-61, that ran out of fuel while troubleshooting a landing gear problem.  The following recounts some of the details surrounding that accident.  It, and two others - an Eastern L-1011 in the Everglades, and an SAS DC-8-62 off the coast near LAX, resulted in the implementation of the Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) training regimen  - to emphasize the role of all crew members in flying the airplane, and especially, in handling in-flight emergencies and abnormalities.

One does wonder, however, about the non-chalant attitude of Captain McBroom, when informed that there were only 4000 lbs of fuel remaining.  To me, that ain't much, on a big airplane, flying around with the gear down, at low altitude.  At night.   A thousand pounds per tank.  Each engine was burning 220 lbs per minute.  Yet, he elected to fly around for over 25 minutes more, after the tank boost pump low pressure lights began blinking.  (17:48:54 - 18:16:46)  What was he thinking?

 27,638 hours - he should have known better.


Survivor recalls deadly 1978 Portland plane crash

EUGENE, Ore. — You may have had a harrowing holiday travel experience. Odds are, Paula Medaglia can top it.

It was 30 years ago Sunday that she survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 173, an out-of-fuel DC-8 that plowed into an open swath of land near Northeast 157th Avenue and East Burnside Street in Portland.

Ten of the 189 on board died. Medaglia, 32, of Leaburg, Ore., escaped with an arm bruise.

"People will ask: Did your life flash before your eyes when you knew you were going to crash?" she says. "No. I knew I was going to get out of there somehow."

She had come to Eugene in 1976 to get a second master's degree, from the University of Oregon and was returning from a holiday visit with her parents in Boston.

Approaching Portland, the landing gear made a terrible noise when deployed. "Instead of clicking into place, it crashed into place," Medaglia remembers. "There was this huge boom and the whole plane shook."

She was seated near the rear. the pilot, she recalled, announced that they would circle while they checked out the plane.

"Those were the days when you could still smoke on a plane, and nearly everybody, including myself, lit up," Medaglia says. "The woman next to me had two children on board, and as we were flying around I tried to keep it lighthearted for them."

But the mother wasn't as low key. "She turned to me and said, 'If something happens and we get separated, will you take care of my little boy?' "

At 5:44 p.m., the flight crew was told to brace the passengers for landing. But Medaglia says communication in the rear of the plane was poor.

"We saw people up ahead putting on coats and getting out blankets, so we did the same."

She said there was no panic in the tail section.

"I remember looking out the window and seeing streetlights and houses and said to the woman next to me, 'Get in the crash position. I think we're pretty low.' You couldn't hear the engines; they'd gone out."

Three miles short of the airport, the jolt of a wing hitting the roof of a vacant rental house shook the plane.

"You heard this noise of the wing ripping the roof, and then boom, boom, boom, these lurches. I buried my head in my coat."

Then the plane was still. When an exit slide was ripped by tree limbs, she found an exit at the back of the plane and jumped about 10 feet to the ground.

She saw no casualties. Most of the victims were up front.

Pilot Malburn McBroom survived and later was blamed for being so concerned about the landing gear, which apparently was fine, that he allowed the plane to run out of fuel.

Medaglia and many other passengers, however, credit McBroom, who died in 2004 at 77, for setting the plane down in an open area and possibly saving their lives.

They were taken to the airport by bus. "Someone had a bottle of Jack Daniels and we were passing it around," Medaglia says.

She is now 62 and senior program services coordinator for the Lane Workforce Partnership.

The biggest impact on her, she says, has been nervousness while, ironically, in a car, and the empathy she feels for passengers when she hears of other plane crashes.

While her parents were alive, she continued to fly back to see them with a little help from Valium. But now that her folks are gone, she says, no way.

"I haven't flown since 1999. I don't want to push my luck."

Article Copyright by The Associated Press
Accident Report Synopsis

United Airlines Flight 173, departed New York-JFK on a scheduled flight to Portland International Airport (PDX), with an en route stop at Denver (DEN). The DC-8-61 took off from Denver about 14:47. The planned time en route was 2 hrs 26 min. The planned arrival time at Portland was 17:13. There was 46,700 lbs of fuel on board the aircraft when it departed the gate at Denver. This fuel included the Federal Aviation Regulation requirement for fuel to destination plus 45 min and the company contingency fuel of about 20 min.

At 17:05, Flight 173 called Portland Approach and advised that its altitude was 10,000 ft and its airspeed was being reduced. Portland responded and told the flight to maintain its heading for a visual approach to runway 28. Flight 173 acknowledged the approach instructions and stated, "...we have the field in sight." At 17:07, Portland Approach instructed the flight to descend and maintain 8,000 ft. Flight 173 acknowledged the instructions and advised that it was "leaving ten." At 17:09, Flight 173 received and acknowledged a clearance to continue its descent to 6,000 ft.

When the DC-8 was descending through about 8,000 ft, the first officer, who was flying the aircraft, requested the wing flaps be extended to 15 degrees, then asked that the landing gear be lowered. As the landing gear extended, an unusual sound was heard and the aircraft yawed. At 17:12, Portland Approach requested, "United one seven three heavy, contact the tower, one one eight point seven." The flight responded, "negative, we'll stay with you. We'll stay at five. We'll maintain about a hundred and seventy knots. We got a gear problem. We'll let you know." Portland Approach replied, "United one seventy-three heavy roger, maintain five thousand. Turn left heading two zero zero." The flight acknowleged the instructions. At 17:14, Portland Approach advised, "United one seventy three heavy, turn left heading, one zero zero and I'll just orbit you out there 'til you get your problem." Flight 173 acknowledged the instructions.

For the next 23 min, while Portland Approach was vectoring the aircraft in a holding pattern south and east of the airport, the flightcrew discussed and accomplished all of the emergency and precautionary actions available to them to assure themselves that all landing gear was locked in the full down position. The second officer checked the visual indicators on top of both wings, which extend above the wing surface when the landing gear is down-and-locked. About 17:38, Flight 173 contacted the United Airlines Systems Line Maintenance Control Center in San Francisco. The captain explained to company dispatch and maintenance personnel the landing gear problem and what the flightcrew had done to assure that the landing gear was fully extended. He said they were planning to land in about twenty minutes.

About 17:44, the captain and the first flight attendant discussed passenger preparation, crash landing procedures, and evacuation procedures. At 17:46, the first officer asked the flight engineer, "How much fuel we got...?" The flight engineer responded, "Five thousand." About 17:50, the captain asked the flight engineer to "Give us a current card on weight. Figure about another fifteen minutes." The first officer responded, "Fifteen minutes?" To which the captain replied, "Yeah, give us three or four thousand pounds on top of zero fuel weight." The flight engineer then said, "Not enough. Fifteen minutes is gonna really run us low on fuel here." Some calculations were made and at 17:52 the flight engineer talked to Portland and discussed the aircraft's fuel state, the number of persons on board the aircraft, and the emergency landing prepcautions at the airport.

A fuel check at 17:57 learned that there were 1,000 lbs in each tank, totalling 4,000 lbs of fuel. From 17:57 until 18:00, the captain and the first officer engaged in a conversation which included discussions of giving the flight attendants ample time to prepare for the emergency, cockpit procedures in the event of an evacuation after landing, whether the brakes would have antiskid protection after landing, and the procedures the captain would be using during the approach and landing. At 18:01, the flight engineer reported that the cabin would be ready in "another two or three minutes." At 18:02, the flight engineer advised, "We got about three on the fuel and that's it." The aircraft was then about 5 nmi south of the airport on a southwest heading. Portland Approach then asked Flight 173 for a status report. The first officer replied, "Yeah, we have indication our gear is abnormal. It'll be our intention, in about five minutes, to land on two eight left. We would like the equipment standing by. Our indications are the gear is down and locked. We've got our people prepared for an evacuation in the event that should become necessary." At 18:03 Portland Approach asked that Flight 173 advise them when the approach would begin. The captain responded, "...They've about finished in the cabin. I'd guess about another three, four, five minutes." At this time the aircraft was about 8 nmi south of the airport on a southwesterly heading. At 18:06, the first flight attendant entered the cockpit and reported that they were ready in the passenger cabin. At this time the aircraft was about 17 nmi south of the airport on a southwesterly heading. The captain then said, "Okay. We're going to go in now. We should be landing in about five minutes." Almost simultaneous with this comment, the first officer said, "I think you just lost number four ..." followed immediately by advice to the flight engineer, "... better get some crossfeeds open there or something." At 18:06:46, the first officer told the captain, "We're going to lose an engine..." At 18:06:49, the first officer again stated, "We're losing an engine." Again the captain asked, "Why?" The first officer responded, "Fuel." The captain replied, "Why?" Between 18:06:52 and 18:07:06, the CVR revealed conflicting and confusing conversation between flight crewmembers as to the aircraft's fuel state. At 18:07:06, the first officer said, "It's flamed out." At 18:07:12, the captain called Portland Approach and requested, "...would like clearance for an approach into two eight left, now." The aircraft was about 19 nmi south southwest of the airport and turning left. This was the first request for an approach clearance from Flight 173 since the landing gear problem began. Portland Approach immediately gave the flight vectors for a visual approach to runway 28L. The flight turned toward the vector heading of 010 degrees.

At 18:09:21, the captain advised Portland Approach, "United, seven three is going to turn toward the airport and come on in." After confirming Flight 173's intentions, Portland Approach cleared the flight for the visual approach to runway 28L. At 18:10:17, the captain requested that the flight engineer "reset that circuit breaker momentarily. See if we get gear lights." The flight engineer complied with the request. At 18:10:47, the captain requested the flight's distance from the airport. Portland approach responded, "I'd call it eighteen flying miles." At 18:12:42, the captain made another request for distance. Portland Approach responded, "Twelve flying miles." The flight was then cleared to contact Portland tower. At 18:13:21, the flight engineer stated, "We've lost two engines, guys." At 18:13:25, he stated, "We just lost two engines - one and two." At 1813:38, the captain said, They're all going. We can't make Troutdale." The first officer said, "We can't make anything." At 18:13:46, the captain told the first officer, "Okay. Declare a mayday." At 18:13:50, the first officer called Portland International Airport tower and declared, "Portland tower, United one seventy three heavy, Mayday. We're--the engines are flaming out. We're going down. We're not going to be able to make the airport." This was the last radio transmission from Flight 173. About 18:15, the aircraft crashed into a wooded section of a populated area of suburban Portland about 6 nmi east southeast of the airport. There was no fire. The wreckage path was about 1,554 ft long and about 130 ft wide.


PROBABLE CAUSE: "The failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft's fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and the crewmember's advisories regarding fuel state. This resulted in fuel exhaustion to all engines. His inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a possible landing emergency. Contributing to the accident was the failure of the other two flight crewmembers either to fully comprehend the criticality of the fuel state or to successfully communicate their concern to the captain. "

Follow-up / safety actions:

The NTSB made 4 recommendations to the FAA:

1) Issue an Operations Alert Bulletin to have FAA inspectors assure that crew training stresses differences in fuel-quantity measuring instruments and that crews flying with the new system are made aware of the possibility of misinterpretation of gage readings. (Class II--Priority Action) (A-79-32) 

2) Emphasize to engineering personnel who approve aircraft engineering changes or issuance of Supplemental Type Certificates the need to consider cockpit configuration and instrumentation factors which can contribute to pilot confusion, such as the use of similar-appearing instruments with different scale factors. (Class II--Priority Action) (A-79-33)

3) Audit Supplemental Type Certificate SA3357WE-D for completeness, especially in the area of system calibration after installation. (Class II--Priority Action) (A-79-34)

4) Issue an operations bulletin to all air carrier operations inspectors directing them to urge their assigned operators to ensure that their flightcrews are indoctrinated in principles of flightdeck resource management, with particular emphasis on the merits of participative management for captains and assertiveness training for other cockpit crewmembers. (Class II, Priority Action) (A-79-47)


Full set of accident photos here

NTSB Accident Report here

NTSB Identification: DCA79AA005
14 CFR Part 121 Scheduled operation of UNITED AIR LINES INC
Event occurred Thursday, December 28, 1978 in PORTLAND, OR
Aircraft: DOUGLAS DC-8, registration: N8082U


 FILE    DATE          LOCATION          AIRCRAFT DATA       INJURIES       FLIGHT                        PILOT DATA
                                                               F  S M/N     PURPOSE
1-0017  78/12/28   PORTLAND,OR         DOUGLAS DC-8        CR-  2  2  4  SCHED DOM PASSG SRV       AIRLINE TRANSPORT, AGE
        TIME - 1815                    N8082U              PX-  8 21152                            52, 27638 TOTAL HOURS,
                                       DAMAGE-DESTROYED    OT-  0  0  0                            5517 IN TYPE, INSTRUMENT
          NEW YORK,NY                 PORTLAND,OR                  DENVER,CO
        TYPE OF ACCIDENT                                         PHASE OF OPERATION
           ENGINE FAILURE OR MALFUNCTION                            IN FLIGHT: HOLDING
           COLLIDED WITH: TREES                                     LANDING: ROLL

Copyright 2008 Robert A. Bogash.  All Rights Reserved

Associated Press article - copyright Associated Press.

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