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United Airlines 553

By Patrick Mondout

On the afternoon of December 8, 1972, a United Air Lines Boeing 737 operating as flight 553 crashed while attempting to land at the Chicago-Midway Airport. The 737 crashed in a residential area approximately 1.5 miles southeast of the approach end of Runway 31L.

Forty passengers and three crewmembers were killed and the aircraft was destroyed by impact and subsequent fire. A number of houses and other structures in the impact area were also destroyed. Two persons on the ground also received fatal injuries.

A review of the cockpit voice recording (CVR) shows that air traffic control (ATC) had asked the crew to slow down three times. The third time to allow enough space between it and another aircraft ahead of it.

United Airlines

A United 737-222, similar to the one that crashed, seen in at Chicago's O'Hare airport in August, 1971.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at

About 90 seconds before impact, Midway ATC asks flight 553 what their airspeed is. They report 120 knots. Just twenty seconds before impact, Midway ATC requests that United 553 make a missed approach (not land and instead go around for another attempt).

The aircraft was observed below the overcast in a nose-high attitude and with the sound of high engine power just before it crashed into structures on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was the captain's failure to exercise positive flight management during the execution of a non-precision approach, which culminated in a critical deterioration of airspeed into the stall regime where level flight could no longer be maintained.

Among those killed was George Collins, 47, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report NTSB-AAR-73-16.

United Airlines 553 at a Glance
AirlineUnited Airlines
DateDecember 8, 1972
Flight number553
Registration NumberN9031U
Crew Fatalities3 of 6
Passenger Fatalities40 of 55
Other Fatalities2 on ground
Total Fatalities43 of 61 + 2 on ground

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!

"Local papers reported at the time that dazed surviving passengers departed the aircraft after impact. Most of the aircraft was still intact after impact from what I could remember."


"Yes, I remember this very well. I was married at the time and I remember hearing about the crash on the radio at work. I called my wife at home and asked her if she heard about it and if her cousin, Andy, was alright. He was a pilot for United and lived in Alexandria, VA. He was scheduled for that flight out of Washington National, but switched with another pilot, I think his last name was Whitehouse.
At any rate, my wife told me that Andy was fine, and had arrived at O'Hare shortly after the crash. Of course, he wasn't told of the crash until after he landed at O'Hare, and my wife told me that he was pretty shook up about it after he was told what happened. I remember that there was a lot of talk in Chicago about closing the airport at Midway following the crash. Yes, that was a very tragic night."


"I remember this accident quite vividly and seeing the live TV feeds throughout that evening. You could clearly see the United tail prominently in the wreckage. Another prominent victim was Michelle Clark, who was an up-and-coming reporter for WBBM-TV (Channel 2) when she perished in the crash. There's a school in the Chicago area named in her memory. "




Airline: United Airlines

Location: Near Chicago's Midway Airport

Aircraft: Boeing 737-222

Date: December 8, 1972

Total Fatalities: 43 of 61 + 2 on ground

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