Dec. 28, 1978 was a cold night in Portland. United Airlines Flight 173 was on its way into town from Denver. It was the week between Christmas and the New Year. It seemed like any other holiday flight — until something went terribly wrong.
“There was a huge jolt and a loud noise… hard to explain what that noise is, I’ve often explained it as a thud.”
Aimee Ford Conner, a 17-year-old Minnesota native traveling to school in Washington state, was on the plane at the time. She said the aircraft circled for a while as the captain tried to figure out what went wrong.
“The pilot got on the intercom and said ‘We thought we were going in for a landing, we don’t know what’s going on, something with the landing gear… we’re going to circle the city, try to figure it out,’” Ford Conner recalled.
“I don’t even remember the timeframe from the time of that first noise ’til we crashed.”
It appears Capt. Malburn McBroom had been losing track of the time, too.
“They were so focused on the landing gear that they weren’t paying attention to the fuel,” survivor Norman Jean Germond told KOIN 6 News in 1993.
The plane eventually ran out of fuel and its engines flamed out — just six miles southeast of PDX.
At 6:15 p.m., United Airlines 173 fell from the sky and crashed into an East Portland neighborhood.
A total of 189 people were on board that night. Two crew members and eight passengers were killed. Several more had serious injuries. Capt. McBroom was among the survivors.
Aimee Ford Conner said she remembers everyone being calm before the crash, especially the flight attendants, who helped passengers prepare for all possible scenarios. Forty years later, she can recall very little about what happened when the plane hit the ground.
“I have very little memory of impact, I just don’t,” Ford Conner said. “It’s… the memories I have are… I don’t know.”
Photos: Deadly 1978 United Flight 173 crash
After the crash, she remembers that the floor had buckled and she was pinned into her seat by the seat in front of her. People were still surprisingly calm, especially because the plane didn’t catch fire upon impact with the ground. Passengers made their way out of the emergency exit since the wing was sheared off in the crash. Some people thought the pilot had made a hard landing at PDX. They didn’t realize they were in a neighborhood.
“You walk out of the plane – you’re not at the airport,” Ford Conner said with a laugh. “There were houses there. The trees we landed on had become so compressed so thoroughly that we were walking on needles and branches several feet above the ground.”
She remembers getting out of the plane and not knowing where to go. She said there was an ice storm; it was freezing cold outside. People living nearby brought out hot drinks and blankets. They let survivors into their homes to use their phones.
In the coming days and weeks, people had to learn how to get back to normal life again. Ford Conner had to fly again to go to school. She enjoyed the flight to Wenatchee from Portland days later, despite what she had just been through. There was turbulence — and other passengers weren’t so confident about the flight.
“Somebody across the aisle from me said ‘Didn’t you hear about the plane crash in Portland? Aren’t you scared?’” Ford Conner recalled being asked.
She told the fellow passenger, “I did hear about it, and no I’m not.”
But she recalls that being her last pleasant flying experience. She suffered from PTSD at a time when people didn’t know much about it. She has tried therapy, drugs, hypnosis — but nothing has helped her feel confident about flying again. She travels by car and train now. Her last flight was in 1985.
Still, Ford Conner is grateful for her survival and for the last 40 years.
“I have grown and moved in ways that I never would have otherwise,” Ford Conner said of that night. “It was a miracle in the midst of a tragedy.”
Crew Resource Management
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 member’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.”
Read the full accident report below
At first blush, it appears that the captain was solely responsible for the decisions that led to the crash. However, at that time in the airline industry, there weren’t established systems yet to make sure all the crew had a strong enough voice in emergency situations. The NTSB continued in its synopsis of the crash: “Contributing to the accident was the failure of the other two flight crew members to fully comprehend the criticality of the fuel state or to successfully communicate their concern to the captain.”
Julie Whipple is the Portland-based author of the book Crash Course: Accidents Don’t Just Happen. Her father was an attorney who sued United Airlines on behalf of a little girl whose family died on the flight. Through that process, Whipple saw how changes evolved in the airline industry.
“This crash that happened right here in Portland, Oregon really did change the aviation industry.”
She said the pilot was only doing what he thought was right on the night of the crash.
“He was caught in the moment of an emergency… he did not know what his landing gear was going to do when he put that plane on the ground,” Whipple said. “He was very concerned that it was going to veer either into the river or into the terminal.”
She said McBroom ended up taking the blame, and it destroyed his career and his life after that moment.
“The people who were blamed — i.e., the pilot — really didn’t deserve the entire weight of the responsibility that he was given,” she said. “It was a huge burden to bear.”
As a result, the NTSB issued this recommendation to all airlines:
In other words, airlines needed better processes to make sure the viewpoints of all crew members could be considered during emergencies.
“They did not have protocols in place with the rest of the crew so that they would speak up forcefully enough — and they didn’t,” Whipple said. “They made comments, but it wasn’t anything like ‘This is an unsafe situation; we need to get this plane on the ground.’”
That sentiment was echoed by Matthew Syed in his book “Black Box Thinking,” in which he explores how much of an impact Flight 173 has had on not only aviation safety, but also how companies learn from failure.
“United Airlines 173 was chosen as a vehicle to explore the aviation system… it was a watershed event in aviation safety,” Syed wrote. “That much is widely acknowledged.”
“Ten people died on United Airlines 173, but the learning opportunity saved many thousands more.”
Following the crash of Flight 173, experts took a closer look at aviation safety. They implemented what’s called “Crew Resource Management” — which helps a team work together when a problem arises. It’s now a practice used in industries all across the world.
“It really did change the way we operate in a crisis or in a high risk situation,” Whipple said. “Nowadays you’re trained to speak up and be forceful when it comes to a feeling of unease… there’s almost a script that people are taught to use, beginning with ‘I’m concerned.’”
“Everybody’s important — every single voice needs to be heard,” Ford Conner said. “Especially the ones you don’t usually pay attention to because they often notice the stuff that you miss.”
“It’s sad that it has to come out of tragedy — but it’s another one of those hidden gifts… you’ve got to take what you can learn and change things,” Ford Conner added. “It’s a good thing.”
According to the BBC, 2017 was the safest year in history for commercial airlines. And that success in safety is partly due to the lessons learned from Portland that fateful December night in 1978.
It’s pretty amazing — and I think people don’t understand what kind of an impact United Flight 173 has had on safety,” Whipple said.
Connection and Healing
In 1998, Aimee Ford Conner wanted to organize a 20th anniversary reunion to focus on recovery after the crash. She especially wanted one person in particular to be there: Malburn McBroom. When she called him, he told her he was scared to come; he requested to bring family. But he said that if they wanted him to be there, then he felt obligated to show up.
“The man who came to the reunion was very broken,” Ford Conner said. “He was so brave to show up that night.”
Despite his fears, it appears that his presence was welcome at the reunion.
“Many of the 150 survivors sprang to their feet in appreciation,” KOIN 6 News reporter Eric Schmidt said at the time.
“It was a bloody damn traumatic experience for all of us, and if I can assist in that just by being here and talking to some folks, you bet,” McBroom told KOIN 6 in 1998.
Ford Conner agrees with Whipple that the crash was the result of a flawed system — and that the pilot wasn’t to blame.
“I don’t think he did anything wrong, the more I know about about it the more i’m convinced of it,” Ford Conner lamented. “I just wish he were here to hear it.”
Capt. Malburn McBroom died in 2004.
Other survivors have also gone over the past 40 years. There are fewer left who share memories of that night. There’s no lasting memorial for the victims; the area is now surrounded by apartments and MAX tracks. The only thing that remains is an empty lot with a divot where the plane came to rest in 1978. Ford Conner is hoping the remaining survivors and their families will stay in better touch now and in the future.
“I would like to see a little more healing and a lot more connection,” Ford Conner said.
She and Julie Whipple have created an email for the occasion — firstname.lastname@example.org — and they’re planning to visit the crash site in the coming weeks to get some perspective on how much life has changed in the last four decades.
“You can turn a tragedy into something good,” Ford Conner said. “You can do that.”