|The following is an account of the crash of UAL Flight 173 from the perspective of one of the air traffic controllers who worked the DC-8 as it approached the Portland International Airport on December 28, 1978.
January 17, 1999
I, too, was surprised to read in the Oregonian article on the 20-year reunion of the
crash of UA173 that faulty fuel gauges were attributed to the crash. That is the first
time I had heard about that. I was one of the Portland International FAA Air Traffic
Controllers on duty that fateful evening. I was working arrival radar south and took the
handoff from Seattle Center on UA173. The flight was in a position for a straight-in ILS
approach to Rwy 28R, and I instructed the pilot to intercept the localizer and proceed
inbound. At some point the crew advised me they were having a gear problem. I offered
Captain McBroom the option of holding over the Laker outer compass locater at 6,000 until
they were able to resolve the problem. (From that position, they could have deadsticked to
the either runway).
Captain McBroom declined and canceled IFR. He elected to proceed southeast of the
airport 20 miles or so, and circled for a period of time. Information I received later was
that they sent the engineer into the cargo area with a flashlight to check through the
access windows for a view of the gear, to try and determine if it was locked into place.
The Captain and the First Officer were apparently unable to read the fuel gauges at the
engineers station accurately. The next thing I was aware of was that Flight 173 was
proceeding inbound to the airport with an inflight emergency...short of fuel. I switched
the crew over to the tower frequency and monitored. I watched and listened helplessly from
a window at the south side of the radar room, as Flight 173 reported flameout of one
engine after the other, watched the aircraft nav lights flicker out, and then a huge flash
as she took out power transformers a couple miles short of Rwy 28L.
A side note. Several years later I went to work as a Deputy Sheriff for a local
Sheriff's Office. I met a deputy who was on UA173 that night. He was bringing his young
daughter from Denver for visitation. They were seated in First Class. When it was obvious
they may not make it to the airport, flight attendants called for any police officer and
firemen on board who would volunteer to man the emergency exits. Billy volunteered and
went back to the coach section. The lady whose seat he took went forward and took Billy's
seat beside his daughter, in First Class. During the crash, the cockpit and the first 10
rows of seats were demolished, claiming the 10 fatalities...including Billy's daughter and
the female stranger. Billy survived to live with those memories.
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