United Airlines DC-8 Crashed Through Lack of Fuel
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,
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
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
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).
with the Landing Gear
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
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.
crew discussed their crash landing procedure, including how to
inform and reassure the
passengers in advance of such a landing, and how to evacuate
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
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.
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.
"The Wrong Stuff" DVD about the events which caused
the crash of Flight 173 can be found here.
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