United Airlines Flight 173 Crash
In December 28, 1978 United Airlines Flight 173 left Denver for Portland International Airport in Oregon. The airplane encountered problems with the landing gear that resulted into the abortion of landing. The plane circled around the airport to make sure everything was okay before they can land. After a prolonged, unnecessary delay, the aircraft ran out of fuel and crash landed in a suburban part of Portland. The flight crew’s too much attention to the landing gear and preparation for a possible crash landing caused the plane to run out of fuel, and inevitably, crash.
Landing the plane with the gear up should be the last resort of the crew had the landing gear was not able to deploy fully, landing with the gear up is dangerous business. It would put the lives of the passengers and crew in danger. The impact of the landing could damage the fuel tank of the plane that can cause fire.
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It’s bad enough that the passengers would experience great G forces, the presence of fire would decrease their chances of survival. If anything, the captain may have intended to exhaust the plane’s fuel to reduce the chances of fire during the emergency landing. Evidence of his intention however, is not found on the conversations recorded.
The crew did not fail to communicate with each other and with Air Traffic Control regarding their fuel status. What they failed in doing was to correctly relate time, distance from the airport, and the aircraft’s fuel state.
They were too preoccupied with solving the landing gear problem and preparing for a possible crash landing. The crew failed to evaluate the possible outcomes of change in flight plan. They were aware that diagnosing the landing gear problem and the flight attendants’ preparation of the passengers would consume more time that would eat fuel load. The crew was so worried about the gear problem that it took them a lot of time to evaluate the problem. They only had to discuss the problem among themselves, check the flight manual, and then contact dispatch.
By the time the crew informed Air Traffic Control and dispatch of their problem, 28 minutes of precious fuel was wasted. There were no reasons for such a long delay for communicating to ATC and dispatch, the gear checks in the flight manual were brief, winds were favorable, air traffic was minimum, and no more problems occur. Even at this time, the plane still had enough fuel for a final approach but instead of landing immediately, the captain asked the first flight attendant to prepare the passengers for a possible crash landing scenario, which was just right, in fairness to the captain. What the captain forgot was to give a specific time frame for the flight attendant to get the passengers prepared.
The flight attendant in turn, did not think that they were in a hurry, thus, further holding the plane. This accident is clearly an example of a breakdown in cockpit management, the captain failed to divide the tasks among his flight crew, no one was specifically assigned to monitor fuel load in this flight.
In a sense, the flight crew failed to communicate with each other, specifically the first officer and flight engineer to the captain. The first officer did mention about the fuel state to the captain but he did not push his opinion. It was after the plane lost power that the first officer expressed himself directly. If in fact he was aware of the situation they were in, he was not able to relay this important thought to the captain when it mattered. The first officer’s job is to check the captain, but sometimes captains may seem intimidating for the flight crew that they fail to express their opinion openly or right away.
This flight was a disaster because the flight crew failed to relate time, distance from the airport, and the aircraft’s fuel state because they were too absorbed with the landing gear problem, which caused the flight crew to be disorganized and the flight to be on hold for a long time. The first officer and the flight engineer failed to express their opinion about fuel exhaustion in a timely manner. As a saving grace, the plane was empty on fuel when it crashed landed, which would have been on fire if the crew decided to land the plane with the gear up and with plenty of fuel on the tank.