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United Airlines DC-8 Crashed Through Lack of Fuel

  
 
 

Introduction

In the early evening of 28th December 1978 a United Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-8 ran out of fuel and crashed into a wooded area on its approach to Portland International Airport, Oregon, USA.
 
The crew had been preoccupied handling a landing gear malfunction and preparing for a possible emergency landing. As a consequence, indications of the low fuel level were ignored and ten people died in the resulting crash. 
 
The BBC made a documentary programme analysing the events of that night, which is available as a safety training DVD called "The Wrong Stuff".
 

 

Background

United Airlines Flight 173 was a scheduled service from New York to Portland.  On the day of the crash the first leg of the journey, from New York's JFK Airport to Denver Stapleton International Airport, was uneventful.
 
Given that the aircraft later ran out of fuel, it is significant to note that on departure from Denver it carried 46,700lbs of aviation fuel; enough to enable the flight to Portland and to allow extra flying time of 45 minutes (an industry-wide regulation) plus a further 20 minutes (a United Airlines emergency allowance).

   
 

Problems with the Landing Gear

When Flight 173 was on its final approach to Portland International Airport, it radioed that the runway was in sight.
 
The First Officer was at the controls during the descent. He ordered the wing flaps to be extended, which was necessary in order to maintain flight at the lower speed used during the final approach. He also ordered the landing gear to be deployed. From that moment the flight ceased to be routine, with disastrous results.
 
As the landing gear was lowered there was an unusual sound and the aircraft pulled slightly to one side. For a little over twenty minutes it followed a holding pattern while the crew went through the relevant emergency and precautionary action lists. They then contacted United Airlines Systems Line Maintenance Control Centre to alert them to the problem, inform them of the actions taken and seek their advice.
 

 

Approaching the Airport

The crew discussed their crash landing procedure, including how to inform and reassure the passengers in advance of such a landing, and how to evacuate them. 
 
The First Officer asked for a fuel reading. The captain asked if there was enough fuel for a further 15 minutes of flight and was told that there was not. It appears that during the emergency the flight engineer had failed to warn the other crew members of the critically low fuel level. For their part, the other  crew members were distracted by the emergency and failed to ask for fuel information until it was already too late to save the aircraft. 
 
At this point the plane was near the airport but moving away from it. The crew advised Portland Control that they were now about to make their emergency landing. Almost immediately one of the engines lost power.

Portland Control advised Flight 173 that they were about 18 miles from the runway. Soon afterwards the other engine 'flamed out' and the crew radioed a mayday call. The crash occurred a little under seven miles from the airport.

   
 

Consequences
Some procedures were modified to ensure regular fuel readouts while aircraft are in a holding pattern.
 
The airline industry modified flight crew training to improve awareness of the need for the crew to operate together as a fully functioning team, in contrast to the tendency hitherto of some pilots to behave autocratically. 

 

 

Safety Training Material

The BBC's "The Wrong Stuff" DVD about the events which caused the crash of Flight 173 can be found here.

 

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