Close-Up: United Airlines Flight 173 – A Controller’s Account

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.

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SafetyI, too, was surprised to read in the Oregonian article on the 20-year reunion of thecrash of UA173 that faulty fuel gauges were attributed to the crash. That is the firsttime I had heard about that. I was one of the Portland International FAA Air TrafficControllers on duty that fateful evening. I was working arrival radar south and took thehandoff from Seattle Center on UA173. The flight was in a position for a straight-in ILSapproach to Rwy 28R, and I instructed the pilot to intercept the localizer and proceedinbound. At some point the crew advised me they were having a gear problem. I offeredCaptain McBroom the option of holding over the Laker outer compass locater at 6,000 untilthey were able to resolve the problem. (From that position, they could have deadsticked tothe either runway).

Captain McBroom declined and canceled IFR. He elected to proceed southeast of theairport 20 miles or so, and circled for a period of time. Information I received later wasthat they sent the engineer into the cargo area with a flashlight to check through theaccess 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 theengineers station accurately. The next thing I was aware of was that Flight 173 wasproceeding inbound to the airport with an inflight emergency…short of fuel. I switchedthe crew over to the tower frequency and monitored. I watched and listened helplessly froma window at the south side of the radar room, as Flight 173 reported flameout of oneengine after the other, watched the aircraft nav lights flicker out, and then a huge flashas 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 localSheriff’s Office. I met a deputy who was on UA173 that night. He was bringing his youngdaughter from Denver for visitation. They were seated in First Class. When it was obviousthey may not make it to the airport, flight attendants called for any police officer andfiremen on board who would volunteer to man the emergency exits. Billy volunteered andwent back to the coach section. The lady whose seat he took went forward and took Billy’sseat beside his daughter, in First Class. During the crash, the cockpit and the first 10rows of seats were demolished, claiming the 10 fatalities…including Billy’s daughter andthe female stranger. Billy survived to live with those memories.

Ed KingRey
Vancouver, WA

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