The Crash of Flight 173

Hello Portland. My name is Kevin-Michael Moore. I was born in Hollywood, California, and raised in Troutdale—and that will mess anyone up. So, give or take, I’ve spent almost 45 years in Portland, and I love this city. I really do.

I have bounced in a number of directions as to what this blog should be about and came up with this. Portland stories. Just that, stories about life or an incident that sets its feet firmly on Portland soil. So I’ll start things off with this one, and this one is an honest to god Portland event.

In 1978 my dad worked for Western Airlines (dead memory). Dad had called home to say that he was staying late at work, a plane was having trouble dropping its landing gear and it might have to make a crash landing. I turned on the news, and it was on every channel, all four of them. Flight 173 had been told by the PDX control tower to circle the airport until a suitable solution became apparent. A suitable solution never became apparent.

My father, when he chose to speak, could not be faulted for his wit, and he knew everything about air travel, and I mean everything. So I believed him every time he said arbitrary things like, (pointing to an airplane high in the sky) “See that plane, Kevin? That’s a Hughes Airwest 737 (dead memory) coming from Seattle and heading to…um…Ixtapa, Mexico.” I’m not so gullible now, but I have to say that I’ve tried the same trick on my five year old nephew, and it works.

Anyway I had gotten good at recognizing airline travel paths and was sure that my sister and I could track down flight 173 from Denver to Portland. I leapt into action. I turned to my sister and said, “We are going to find that airplane.”
And find it we did.

It’s December, it’s early evening and it’s freezing cold. I’m aboard my green metal-flaked Schwinn bike. I’m fourteen years old, and my posse (my eleven year old sister Cheri and three or four other kids her age) and I are tracking an airplane that is doomed to crash less than 200 yards in front of us.

Under the direction of PDX, flight 173 began to circle at about 5,000 feet in a triangular pattern twenty miles southeast of the airport.

We lived on 162nd and NE Everett Ct. The beast touched ground in the intersection of 162nd and Burnside.

6:15 PM we turned the corner of Everett and 162nd and were heading south towards Burnside. We suddenly spotted the big bird coming down, smack-dab into the center of our white, middle-class neighborhood (dead memory). We collectively watched in horror as the speck in the sky became a three-story building falling to earth. It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard; it was the loudest sound I never heard.

All sound was sucked away, and everything went to slow motion. I could see the panicked faces of the passengers through the windows of the plane while strobe-like cabin lights flashed on and off and the plane zoomed past us on Burnside through the miraculously empty (at rush hour) intersection, finally coming to rest near 158th St.

A wing takes out a couple of power poles, and the sound comes back. Power-lines snap on the pavement, and the big bird is gone. Things quiet for a moment; then I hear the screaming. Fourteen-year-old science tells me that the live wires are intrinsically dangerous so I tell my sister and her friends to go home. They do. I take a trail into the woods (dead memory) and watch for hours. The emergency vehicles arrive. The bodies are carried away. The injured are tended to, and I watch. Out of 189 on board, 10 die, and 24 are seriously hurt. It changed me. Lesson learned. Mortality is real.
It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard; it was the loudest sound I never heard.

29 Responses to The Crash of Flight 173

  1. Margie Boule December 15, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Sorry I didn’t see this last January when you posted it. I met and talked to McBroom. He may have made excuses early on, but I wrote about a survivor who wanted to organize a reunion of survivors, in my column in The Oregonian. After the column ran she was able to put together the reunion with a surprising number of folks, who flew in from all over the country. She actually was able to get McBroom to attend. His daughters persuaded him, and came with him from Denver, I think it was. He had long ago retired and his life had been ruined after the plane wreck. he’d become an alcoholic. He entered the reunion prepared to be stoned by angry survivors. He wept, took complete responsibility, and could not stop apologizing. The survivors ALL shocked him by apologizing and saying he had saved their lives by the way he handled the plane after the fuel ran out. They said they understood he’d been trying to evacuate all the fuel, and had miscalculated. They told him it was a mistake, which anyone could make, and they forgave him his mistake and were grateful to him for their lives. Relatives of passengers who died had a chance to tell him they forgave him, as well. It changed what little time was left of his life, according to his daughters. I think it was extremely helpful for everyone who attended. I’ll find the column and post it on Facebook when I do. Margie Boule

  2. Cat Zimmerman June 19, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    OMG! I just met a man who worked his way up from the maintenance crew to flight crew to pilot with Western Airlines in southern California. He lives in Vancouver, and for years (after Delta took over Western) he flew for them, all over the country. He has a great collection of crazy photos of planes, and stories to go with all his adventures.

  3. Scott Steele February 3, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    I was a newlywed on the west side of town and the new wife’s ex was on the plane. He lived in Corvallis and had flown out of town a couple weeks earlier, and we let him park at our house to save money. Now we were picking him up, and he was on this plane.

    The plane’s arrival was delayed further and further, and we who were waiting for the plane’s arrival couldn’t get a straight answer why it was late. Then they rounded everyone up and took us to a conference room where no one would see our reactions – and then they announced that the plane had landed “short of the runway”. We had visions of a smoking wreck out on Marine Drive somewhere.

    Before cell phones there was no way of reaching my wife’s ex. So we waited for him to come to the airport on a school bus reappropriated for the occasion. We finally left for home about five hours after we were scheduled to pick him up.

    It turned out that he had sat next to one of the escape chute hatches, and he was helping people down the chute from inside the plane – that must have been some interesting duty for him.

    The next day we drove out to the crash site and had a good look around. I still enjoy the name of the Happy Landing Tavern, just south of Stark on 162nd. – S.

    • Matthew Steele August 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm #

      Wow, Dad. I had no idea you knew someone who was on a plane that crashed, or even that a plane crashed in Portland. We should hang out and figure out what else I don’t know.

  4. Dave Maier February 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

    Not to pick nits, but the captain’s name was Malburn McBroom. He contended that the plane’s fuel gauges were inaccurate and defectively designed. He never convinced anyone of that.

  5. Jan February 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    Incredible account, Kevin!

  6. Katrina Spillman February 2, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    That is just beautifully written.

  7. Cheri January 30, 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    Wow such great comments. Thanks for sharing Kevin. I can’t believe we experienced that. It still doesn’t seem real.

  8. Brian Webb January 30, 2011 at 7:50 am #

    How interesting — I don’t think I even knew you were that close to the crash.

    My house was the closest to the crash — the plane ended up with the roof of our neighbor’s house on the back of the plane.

    It was just after dark, and there was a loud crash and the ground shook. Initially we thought a transformer had blown. Then we heard that a plane had gone down (first reports were that it was a light plane). I walked outside — there were people wandering through our yard (they were crash survivors). I looked up, and the tail of the plane reached high into the air.

    Numerous plane parts were scattered through our yard. The perimeter was set up on the far side of our house (we had to pass through the perimeter every day to get to our house).

    Made a lot of money taking people’s cameras from the perimeter, taking pictures, and returning the cameras.

  9. Jim Garver January 30, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    I lived about a mile south on 148th & SE Main. As I recall, the crew of the DC-8 were trying to burn off as much fuel as possible before attempting a gear-up landing at PDX. They miscalculated and the fuel was used up too soon. The pilot was praised for putting down in the only vacant lot in the area.
    I was a frequent flier circa 1980-81 and flew on many stretch-8’s. They would throttle back almost completely over Mt Hood and just seemed to glide in to PDX on the huge wings. I used to read “For the Wreckord” in Air Classics magazine while flying. I would choose my seat all the way in the back since that’s where the survivors usually were. From there you could see the entire fuselage of the Big 8’s bend and twist, sometimes doing a spiral-curve in flight. I liked the DC-8 because they had huge passenger windows.

  10. Bill Reinhardt January 29, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    I remember the Airline crash vividly. I had a part-time job driving Radio Cab at night and our cabies were some of the 1st people to hear about the accident. The dispatcher was privy to emergency police calls and promptly announced to everyone on the streets what had happened. I was driving out to Gresham for a fare when we heard the main roads in that direction were being closed for emergency traffic. I was at 120th & Stark and had to stop to avoid all the sirens and lights suddenly coming from all directions. It was high drama for the SE suburbs! I sat for a long time in my cab watching & listening, transfixed by the radio dispatcher updating the traffic situation. The SE Portland area known a ‘Montavilla’ was my regular turf, so It really put a damper on making any money that night!

  11. jimdavis January 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Kevin- My dad was one of the investigating officers at the scene, and we have many photos, I’ll try and post. Weirdly the day I read your post, I was out to dinner celebrating my dad’s birthday with my family, and we were talking about the plane crash. Also, probably ten years ago I was talking to a young guy and for some reason I brought the story of the crash, and he said “I was on that flight”. He had been an infant with his mother on the flight, of course he survived and so did his mother. Thanks for your great idea of DMPort.

  12. Cynthia Morris January 28, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    I lived about 6 blocks away from the crash (north, in the direction the plane was flying). I remember hearing the noise but most of all, seeing a huge flash in the sky from the power lines taken out. Hearing a multitude of sirens, we walked outside and saw the airport fire crew heading to the scene. That was an instant sign of a problem. I remember feeling queasy, overwhelmed that this scene was so close, yet knowing there was nothing I could do to really help. To this day, I have a recurring dream about watching an airplane crash.

  13. beckyb January 28, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    wow. thanks for sharing.

    • Sean Croghan January 28, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

      Great story Kevin. That was a hell of a night as I remember. I lived in Gresham then and remember thinking how close big news was occurring to us. It was such a little city back then, for anything exciting to happen here was a big deal.

  14. Pete Bellant January 28, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Our high school alumni page happened to be discussing this very topic last week. It happened about twenty blocks from David Douglas High School. Many of our classmates from the Class of 1975 have clear memories of this event. The thread of our discussion is found here:

    What amazes me is how many first-hand accounts were recalled from people who managed to get close or even side-step perimeters on the night this happened. I do remember driving by a day or so later during daylight hours, but by then the area was well-guarded with no trespassing signs everywhere.

  15. Sheri Calhoun January 28, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Wow Kevin! What a story, not sure anyone will ever be able to top THAT “dead memory”!

  16. Katherine January 28, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Wow, what a well told story. I was on the edge of my seat. I was 18 yrs old living in Vancouver at the time. I just barely remember that event taking place. I wonder why they didn’t just let the plane land wounded at the airport?

  17. John Browne January 28, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Great yarn!.. and good history, as well. Thanks. ^..^

  18. Jen @ StuffJenSays January 28, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    I was ten years old and lived in Bethany, so was nowhere near the crash site. I remember the breaking news interrupting whatever was on TV. Frustrated, I went out to the living room and my mom asked why I wasn’t watching TV and I said, “Oh, the news is on now because some plane crashed in Portland.” She jumped up and we spent the rest of the evening watching news reports. That’s when I realized how serious this was. Just recently I found the NTSB report online and read it with much more interest than my 10-year-old self ever had.

  19. Madeline York January 28, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    That is an amazing experience! I lived on 162nd between Wasco and Multnomah at that time and it was definitely an event that stays etched in ones mind. I wasn’t right there though and have only a memory of the wreckage. To have lived so close and realized that it could have landed a little north also gave me an experience with mortality too.

  20. Susan Stelljes January 28, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    What a incredible story. I think that this website is going to prompt a lot of memories and provide a great service to the community.

    This is living history.

  21. Rick January 28, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    Great post… Thanks…

  22. Alan January 28, 2011 at 6:35 am #

    Interesting. I remember that day, but much less well (for obvious reasons, I guess). I was fourteen, too. I was in the car with my mom and we heard about it on the radio, I think. She made a half-hearted attempt to drive in the direction of the crash to take a look, but thought better of it. I remember being distinctly unsatisfied by the coverage on the news later–I guess I shouldn’t have expected much from a tiny black-and-white TV anyway. Maybe I should have counted myself lucky.

  23. Tim January 28, 2011 at 6:30 am #

    I have a friend who’s dad was a pilot out of Portland at the time of the crash (he was also a pilot for a few years before the economy forced a bunch of them out of their jobs). He maintains that the story that the media told was nothing (or little) to do with what really happened. He read the transcript of the cockpit communication and said it had little resemblance to the actual conversation (which he heard).

    • Katherine January 28, 2011 at 10:42 am #

      I am curious about what your friend’s father says he read and heard. I wonder what really happened?

      • Steve Von Wald January 30, 2011 at 11:23 am #

        Rust on the gear lowering arm allowed the gear to fall free and break a micro switch giving the pilot an unsafe gear indication. On the DC8 imboard of engines one and three, the two engines closest to the cockpit, there are gear indicater pins. Gear goes down, pins come up. Crew advised captain of fuel problems, captain ignored the repeated concerns of fuel status and ran aircraft out of fuel. A major no no in aviation. Because of this accident CRM cockpit resourse management came into play. All crew members in a problem work together to solve the problem as a team. In the old days the captain was God. Because of this accident, the captain Malcom MCbroom lost ten lifes and his career. Go to NTSB aviation accidents to find this accident contains full accident report and transcripts of air traffic control and crew conversations.

        • Gregg May 19, 2011 at 8:23 am #

          I can confirm Steve’s comments. I had a conversation with a former United pilot also stated cockpit crew who enthusiastically warned McBroom of the lack of fuel. He added he even asked how much fuel was remaining and was told 10 minutes but continued to fly in a holding pattern for 10 minutes. He even told the flight engineer to get as much fuel out of the engines as possible – like he could control that. Additionally, he shared McBroom was an investigator who was hyper sensitive to crash landing situations related to fuel which suggests why he was determined to land the plane with as little fuel as possible. McBroom held some type of training position and as with all crashes, all pilots are briefed and trained accordingly. This pilot who I learned this from who is a friend of mine was in a room with 20 other pilots who all walked out when McBroom when he came in to start the session.

          I’m sure McBroom was a good pilot and a good man and while it is not in my nature to judge someone I know little of, the truth still should be known. There is more value in that.


  1. December 28, 1978: United Airlines DC-8 Crashes in Northeast Portland - December 28, 2011

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