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DC-8 Runs Out of Fuel & Crashes Near Portland

By Patrick Mondout

At 6:15 pm on December 28, 1978, a United Airlines DC-8 operating as Flight 173 crashed into a wooded, populated area of suburban Portland, Oregon, during an approach to the Portland International Airport.

Of the 181 passengers and 8 crewmembers aboard, 8 passengers, the flight engineer, and a flight attendant were killed and 21 passengers and 2 crewmembers were injured seriously.

The aircraft had delayed southeast of the airport at a low altitude for about one hour while the flight crew coped with a landing gear malfunction and prepared the passengers for the possibility of a landing gear failure upon landing. Meanwhile, they failed to properly gauge the amount of fuel left for flight and the landing gear problem - a minor emergency - became a major fuel starvation emergency.

The plane ran out of fuel and crashed about six miles southeast of the airport. The aircraft was destroyed; though there was no fire. See our map at the very bottom of this page.

United DC-8

A United DC-8 similar to the one involved in this crash, as seen in at LAX in February 1977.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at


All ten fatalities occurred on the right side of the aircraft between F/E Rodrick Beebe in the cockpit and the fifth row of seats. This section of the aircraft was badly damaged.

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 crewmember's 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 possible 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. 

The investigation revealed that fuel was burned at a normal rate between Denver and Portland. The aircraft arrived in the Portland area with the preplanned 13,800 lbs of fuel and began its delay at 5,000 f t with about 13,334 lbs.

Source: Adapted from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report NTSB-AAR-79-7.

United Airlines 173 at a Glance
AirlineUnited Airlines
DateDeccember 28, 1978
Flight number173
Registration NumberN8082U
Crew Fatalities2 of 8
Passenger Fatalities8 of 181
Total Fatalities10 of 189

Air Safety References:
Bartelski, Jan. Disasters in the Air: Mysterious Air Disasters Explained. Airlife Publishing: England, 2001.
Beaty, David. The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. Airlife Publishing: England, 1996.
Cushing, Steven. Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Faith, Nicholas. Black Box: The Air-Crash Detectives-Why Air Safety Is No Accident. Motorbooks International, 1997.
Gero, David. Aviation Disasters: The World's Major Civil Airliner Crashes Since 1950. Sutton, 2003.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 1). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1995.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 2). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1996.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 3). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1999.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety: Accident Investigations, Analyses & Applications. McGraw Hill, New York, 1996.
Macpherson, Malcolm. The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Macpherson, Malcolm. On a Wing and a Prayer: Interviews with Airline Disaster Survivors. Perennial, 2002.
Owen, David. Air Accident Investigation, 2nd Edition. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Stewart, Stanley. Emergency! - Crisis on the Flight Deck, 2nd Edition. Airlife Publishing, England, 2003.
Walters, James M. Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Wells, Alexander T. Commercial Aviation Safety, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001.


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about this crash? Were you a witness? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"What I remember about this crash, is that my grandfather was one of the ten dead. We had just seen him and wished each other a Merry Christmas, prior to his leaving on this trip to see his son. I remember the phone ringing at almost the same time we heard about the crash on the news."


"I remember that there was a prisoner being transported on this plane. After aiding several of the other passengers to escape the danger of the crashed plane, he then escaped himself!

Does anyone know what happened to him over the years?"


"I remember that two of the passengers were a prisoner in handcuffs and the law enforcement officer in charge of him. With the trouble with the landing gear, and preparation for a possible crash, the prisoner was unhandcuffed. Once the plane crashed, the reports were that the prisoner became separated from his guard, but was hailed by passengers as being a hero, going back into the plane numerous times to help injured people out, all while the fear was that the plane would explode in fire. Finally, once the last person was out, the prisoner made his escape, disappearing in the confusion. Later, prosecutors publicly pleaded for him to turn himself in, and promised that there would be no charges for escape. As I recall, that's exactly what the prisoner did after enjoying several days of freedom, and that the prosecutors did keep their word, filing no additional charges."


"It crashed 1 1/2 block from my house. I and my brother were some of the first on the seen. People were walking out of brush, and lying down. Telephone poles where snapped in two, and live wires were on the ground. The sound was like a bomb yet with no after sound. It is no wonder Walter Cronkite called it the "Miracle on Burnside"."

--Dane Gjesdal

"I can remember my mother and I sitting on the couch watching tv. The plane flew right over my home in Portland and we heard this horrible crash and shake, then we lost power. We had no idea what happened until my brother came home from work, he had been in the area when the plane when down. There was a little girl that survived and her parents and siblings were killed. My mother took me to the hospital and I gave her one of my teddy bears I got from the holidays. To this date Lisa and I email each other and she still has the bear I gave her 26 years ago."




Airline: United Airlines

Location: Gresham, Oregon

Aircraft: DC-8-61

Date: Deccember 28, 1978

Total Fatalities: 10 of 189

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