Daily Archives: December 28, 2023

28 December 1978

United Airlines’ McDonnell Douglas DC-8-61, N8082U, photographed at New York–JFK, 3 January 1978. (© Howard Chaloner. Image used with permission.)

28 December 1978: United Airlines Flight 173, A McDonnell Douglas DC-8, N8082U, departed Stapleton International Airport (DEN), Denver, Colorado, enroute to Portland International Airport (PDX), Portland, Oregon. Under the command of Captain Malburn Adair McBroom, the airliner carried 181 passengers and 8 crew members. The planned duration of the flight was 2 hours, 26 minutes. The DC-8 carried 46,700 pounds (21,183 kilograms) of jet fuel, sufficient for the flight plus an additional 1 hour, 5 minutes fuel for the required 45-minute reserve and any contingencies.

On approach to Portland, the crew lowered the DC-8’s landing gear and flaps. They felt a heavy thump followed by a vibration and the airplane yawing. The indicator light showing that the main gear was down and locked did not illuminate.

Concerned that there was a problem with the landing gear, Captain McBroom aborted the landing and put the airliner in a holding pattern south of the airport. For approximately one hour, Captain McBroom, First Officer Roderick Duane Beebe, and Flight Engineer Forrest Ervin Mendenhall attempted to determine the nature of the problem. Finally, though the situation was not resolved, the crew turned toward Portland and prepared for an emergency landing.

At 18:06:46, the flight engineer reported, “We’re going to lose an engine,” and three seconds later, said, “We’re losing an engine.” The captain asked “Why?” The first officer responded, “Fuel.” The captain again asked “Why?”

At 18:07:06, Flight Engineer Mendenhall reported that the engine had “flamed out” (stopped running due to fuel exhaustion). Captain McBroom called Portland Approach Control and requested an immediate clearance to land at PDX, “now.” The airliner was then 18 miles south of the airport. McBroom asked Mendenhall to reset the landing gear circuit breakers. “See if we get gear lights.”

At 18:13:21, Mendenhall said, “We just lost two engines, guys.” Four seconds later, he said, “We just lost two engines—one and two.” [Both engines on the left wing.] McBroom said, “They’re all going,” and told First Officer Beebe to declare an emergency.

At 18:13:50, Beebe called, “Portland Tower, United One-Seventy-Three Heavy, mayday. We’re—The engines are flaming out. We’re going down. We’re not able to make the airport.” There were no further transmissions.

At approximately 18:15, United Flight 173 crashed in a residential area, about 6 nautical miles (11 kilometers) southeast of Portland International Airport. Eight passengers were killed, along with Flight Engineer Mendenhall and Senior Flight Attendant Joan Newton Wheeler. Another 23 persons were seriously injured. Two unoccupied homes were destroyed.

The scene of the crash of Flight 173. The airliner came to rest just north of E. Burnside Street, and east of NE 157th Avenue. (Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found:

3.2 Probable Cause

     The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft’s fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and the crew-members’ advisories regarding fuel state. This resulted in fuel exhaustion to all engines. His inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a landing emergency.

     Contributing to the accident was the failure of the other two flight crewmembers either to fully comprehend the criticality of the fuel state or to successfully communicate their concern to the captain.


United Airlines Flight 173 crashed in a wooded area, southeast of PDX.

When the landing gear was lowered, a gear retraction cylinder failed, allowing the right main gear to fall into place. It locked, but a microswitch which should have activated the landing gear indicator light was damaged.

United Airlines’ operations manual required that the crew have the control tower make a visual check that the gear was down. Though it could not confirm that the gear was locked, if the visual check indicaated that landing gear appeared to be down, a landing was authorized. Captain McBroom deviated from this procedure.

The airliner was a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-61, serial number 45972, which had been delivered to United Airlines on 22 May 1968. At the time of the accident, it had flown a total of 33,114:33 hours.

A United Airlines Douglas DC-8-61, the same type as the accident aircraft. (Jon Proctor)

The DC-8-61 is a four-engine turbojet-powered airliner with swept wings. It was a “stretched” variant of the basic DC-8 design, capable of carrying a maximum of 259 passengers. A 240 inch (6.096 meters) “plug” was installed forward of the wings and a 200 inch (5.08 meters) plug aft. This gave the airliner a total length of 187.4 feet (57.12 meters), with a wingspan of 142.4 feet (43.40 meters) and maximum height of 43 feet, 5.2 inches (13.239 meters). N8082 had a zero fuel weight of 201,927 pounds (91,592.6 kilograms), and a maximum certified takeoff weight (MTOW) of 325,000 pounds (147,418 kilograms). The maximum usable fuel was 23,393 U.S. gallons (88,552 liters).

The DC-8-61 was powered by four Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp JT3D-3B engines. This engine was a civil variant of the military TF33 series. The JT3D-7 was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet engine with a 2-stage fan, 14-stage compressor (7 intermediate-, 7 high-pressure stages) and 4-stage turbine (1 high- and 3 low-pressure stages). The JT3D-3B had a maximum power rating of 18,000 pounds of thrust. The engine was 145.5 inches (3.696 meters) long, 53 inches (1.346 meters) in diameter, and weighed 4,340 pounds (1,969 kilograms).

The DC-8-61 had a cruise speed of 0.82 Mach, and a maximum range of 3,200 nautical miles (5,926 kilometers). During a test flight at Edwards Air Force Base, 21 August 1961, a Douglas DC-8-43, N9604Z, reached Mach 1.1012.

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

2 December–28 December 1955

De Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO ay the Farnborough air show, September 1954. (RuthAS via Wikipedia)
De Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO at the Farnborough Airshow, September 1954. (RuthAS via Wikipedia)

2 December 1955: The prototype de Havilland DH-106 Comet 3, G-ANLO, departed Hatfield Aerodrome, Hertfordshire, England, with Chief Test Pilot John Cunningham and Per Buggé in the cockpit. R.W. Chandler was the navigator/radio operator. Other crew members included Chief Flight Engineer E. Brackstone Brown, and flight engineers R.V. Ablett and J. Hamilton.

Several de Havilland executives and engineers were among the passengers. Captain A.P.W. Cane of British Overseas Airways Corporation and Captain I.D.V. Ralfe of Qantas were aboard to observe to new airliner in operation.

De Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO was delayed by heavy fog at Hatfield, 2 December 1955. (De Havilland)
De Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO was delayed by heavy fog at Hatfield, 2 December 1955. (De Havilland)

Departure had been scheduled for 5:30 a.m., local time, but heavy fog delayed the flight. 5 hours, 3 minutes later, the Comet 3 landed at Cairo, Egypt, after flying 2,076 nautical miles (2,389 statute miles, 3,845 kilometers). Rather than continuing on as had originally been planned, the crew remained over night at Cairo.

G-ANLO left Cairo the following morning and with refueling stops at Bombay, Maharashtra India; Singapore, Colony of Singapore; and Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia; the airliner arrived at Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on 4 December, after a total of 19 hours, 5 minutes of flight. The distance traveled was 8,728 nautical miles (10,044 statute miles, 16,164 kilometers). During the Singapore-Darwin leg, the Comet 3 cruised at 44,000 feet (13,411 meters). More than 20,000 people were waiting at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport to see the new jetliner arrive.

De Havilland DH-106 Comet 3 G-ANLO arrived at Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 4 December 1955. (Unattributed)
De Havilland DH-106 Comet 3 G-ANLO arrived at Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 4 December 1955. (Unattributed)

Group Captain Cunningham made demonstration flights from Sydney to Melbourne, Canberra and Perth.

G-ANLO then continued to Auckland, New Zealand, flying the 1,166 nautical miles (1,342 miles, 2,159 kilometers) in 2 hours, 43 minutes. From Auckland to Nadi Airport, Fiji, 1,153 nautical miles (1,326 miles, 2,135 kilometers), took 2 hours, 52 minutes.

The next leg of the around the world tour, Fiji to Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands, was completed on 13 December. The Comet 3 covered the 2,791 nautical miles (3,212 statute miles, 5,169 kilometers) in 6 hours, 44 minutes. G-ANLO remained at Honolulu for the next two days.

DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO is decorated with a flower lei on its arrival at Honolulu International Airport, 13 December 1955. (Zoggavia)
DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO is decorated with a flower lei on its arrival at Honolulu International Airport, 13 December 1955. (Zoggavia)

On 15 December, the Comet 3 left Honolulu for Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 2,408 nautical miles (2,771 statute miles, 4,460 kilometers). The duration of this flight was 5 hours, 40 minutes. The Comet 3 flew across Canada to Toronto, Ontario, 1,898 nautical miles (2,184 statute miles, 3,515 kilometers) in 3 hours, 56 minutes, then on to Montreal, Quebec, arriving there on 20 December.

The final leg of the flight, Montreal to London Heathrow Airport, 2,907 nautical miles (3,345 statute miles, 5,384 kilometers) was completed in 6 hours, 9 minutes, on 27 December 1955.

This was the first around-the-world flight by a jet-powered aircraft. The total distance flown by the Comet 3 was 24,324 nautical miles (27,991.6 statute miles/45,048.1 kilometers) The total flight time was 56 hours, 17 minutes.

For this flight Group Captain Cunningham was awarded the Harmon Trophy, which was presented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 23 October 1956.

The de Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 was a further development of the Comet 2 series. It was 15 feet (4.572 meters) longer with a length of 111 feet, 6 inches (33.985 meters), a wingspan of 115 feet (35.052 meters) and overall height of 29 feet, 6 inches (8.992. The area of the wings and tail surfaces had been increased. It was powered by four Rolls Royce Avon 521 turbojet engines, rated at 10,000 pounds of thrust (44.48 kilonewtons), each.

De Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO, left quarter, at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, 1955. (Dphne Seager)
De Havilland DH.106 Comet 3 G-ANLO, left quarter, at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, 1955. (Daphne Seager)

The airliner was designed to carry 58–76 passengers on flights ranging to 2,600 miles (4,184 kilometers). In addition to the increased length, visual differences from the previous Comets were the circular passenger windows, and wing tanks extending forward from the wings’ leading edges.

Only two Comet 3s were built and one was used as a static test article. Production continued with the Comet 4, which had even greater improvements. G-ANLO remained a development prototype and was modified several times. In 1958 the wings were shortened and the external wing tanks removed. The airplane was redesignated Comet 3B. It was turned over to the Ministry of Supply and re-registered XP915, 20 June 1961. The airplane was used in instrument landing tests and later converted to a mockup of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod MR1 maritime patrol aircraft. It was taken out of service in 1966 and scrapped.

Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (Daily Mail)
Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (Daily Mail)

Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., was born 1917 and educated at Croydon. In 1935 he became an apprentice at De Havilland’s and also joined the Auxiliary Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. Cunningham was called to active duty in August 1939, just before World War II began.

Promoted to Group Captain in 1944, Cunningham was the highest scoring Royal Air Force night fighter pilot of World War II, credited with shooting down 20 enemy airplanes. He was responsible for the myth that eating carrots would improve night vision.

Following the War, John Cunningham returned to de Havilland as a test pilot. Following the death of Geoffrey Raoul de Havilland, Jr., in 1946, Cunningham became the de Havilland’s chief test pilot. He remained with the firm through a series of mergers, finally retiring in 1980.

He set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world speed and altitude record with the company’s DH.100 Vampire jet fighter, TG278: 799.644 kilometers per hour (496.876 miles per hour) over a 100 kilometer course at Lympne Airport, 31 August 1947.¹ He flew the DH.100 to 18,119 meters (59,446 feet) over Hatfield Aerodrome, 23 March 1948.² On 24 April 1950, Cunningham flew a DH.106 Comet Mk.I from London to Cairo at an average speed of 686.56 kilometers per hour (426.61 miles per hour), setting a world record for speed over a recognized course.³

Group Captain Cunningham died 21 July 2002 at the age of 84 years.

Per Olivarius Buggé (also known as Peter Bugge) was born at Kristiansund, Norway in 1918. He joined the Royal Norwegian Air Force in 1938. After Germany invaded the country, Buggé escaped to Sweden, April 1940, and in February 1941 arrived in Great Britain. He served with the Royal Air Force for the remainder of the War, flying Bristol Beaufighters and de Havilland Mosquitos with No. 604 Squadron and No. 85 Squadron (while it was under the command of Squadron Leader John Cunningham).

After the War Buggé flew for British Overseas Airways Corporation and Swedish Airlines. In 1949, he joined de Havilland as a test pilot, and stayed with the company after it was absorbed by Hawker Siddeley. He died in 1998.

John Cunningham (left) and Per Bugge in the cockpit of a DH.106 Comet. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
John Cunningham (left) and Per Buggé in the cockpit of a DH.106 Comet. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

¹ FAI record file number 8884

² FAI record file number 9844

³ FAI record file number 6378

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes