40 Years Ago Tonight: A Deadly Plane Crash in Portland

On December 27, 1978 United Airlines pilot Malburn, “Buddy” Mcbroom was making his thirteenth flight to Portland, Oregon.  He was a world war two veteran and well experienced pilot.  Everything seemed to be going routine, as a little after 5:00 P.M., Mcbroom told the passengers to look out the right side of the plane for a view of beautiful Mount Hood and the nighttime skiers.   Then, as the plane lowered its landing gear, something went wrong.  The passengers and crew heard a loud boom, the plane shook.  The control light that said “landing gear locked in place” went out, and the crew was unsure whether it would be safe to land.

Mcbroom radioed the tower and told them he would circle the airport while they tried to figure out what to do.  They circled for over an hour, worrying about the landing gear problem but not paying attention to the fuel level.  The flight crew organized the passengers for a crash landing, putting strong men in the exit rows and instructing on the best position to be in for the anticipated impact.  Shortly after six p.m., Mcbroom declared he would bring the plane in for a landing at the airport, but it was too late.  The plane was out of fuel and had essentially been turned into a large glider.  It came down near 157th and East Burnside, about five miles from the airport, snapping trees and power lines before crashing into two houses.  Thankfully, the houses were both for sale and empty at the time.

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Photo Credit: The Oregonian

Of the 189 people  on board, ten were killed and two dozen seriously injured. Among the dead were Gabor Andor, his wife, Rosina, and their daughters, Gabriella, 2 years old, and Rosina, who was one year old.  A third daughter, Elizabeth, 5, survived.  Also killed were Jasna Peponik and her six month old daughter. Two of the dead were crew members.

Dazed survivors began knocking on doors in the neighborhood, looking to use phones.  Local residents brought blankets and hot drinks to the crash site as it was a bitterly cold night.

The fugitive:
Kim Edward Campbell was a 27 year old on the flight because he was being returned from Colorado after escaping from an Oregon prison work crew.   His time on the run was short, as he had been apprehended by police in Colorado.  When the plane crashed, he acted heroically in helping passengers to safety.  His guard stood on the ground while Campbell handed survivors to him, assuring them they would be okay.  When all the passengers were safely off the ground, Kim told the guard he was going to make one more sweep……..and then fled.  For seven months, he eluded authorities and became a minor folk hero in the area.  He was captured and returned to prison, where he told everyone he was going to turn his life around when he got out.  Unfortunately, he robbed a bank again in Colorado, and returned to life behind bars.

The haunted pilot:
Buddy Mcbroom was born to poor sharecroppers in Texas, and always dreamed of flying.  He served on a submarine in the pacific theater during world war two, then went to flight school on the G.I. bill when he returned home.  He was in his 30th year as a pilot for United on the night of the crash.  In the accident he suffered a broken leg, shoulder and ribs.  More significantly, he was never able to escape the guilt ridden memories caused  by the crash and the feeling that he had failed his most important responsibility, returning his passengers to the ground safely.  Portlanders sent him many letters of support and condolences, pleading with him that there were no ill feelings.   Even so, Mcbroom would later reflect that he considered suicide many times, but didn’t follow through  because he felt it would only hurt his family worse.  Buddy Mcboom passed away in 2004.

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Buddy Mcbroom being visited by his wife in the hospital
Photo Credit: The Oregonian

Changes to airline industry:

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.”  Essentially, Mcbroom became so focused on the landing gear, which had actually dropped into the correct place, that he forgot about monitoring the fuel levels.

At the time, the pilot of the flight was sort of a king, not to be questioned or second guessed. Tom Cordell, a retired United Airlines pilot active in the era, said, “In those days a lot of pilots came out of the military and were very independent, even tyrannical.” In the review of the crash, the NTSB found that had the rest of the crew been more forceful in pointing out the fuel problem to Mcbroom, the crash could have been avoided.  Unfortunately, that was not the culture of flight crews during that time period.  Adjustments were made, and new protocols were taught.  United had all of their crews come to their headquarters for training in what it called “Crew Resource Management.”  The first thing they did was watch the film “Twelve Angry Men”, a 1957 movie about a juror who wouldn’t stop questioning the other eleven who disagreed with him.  All airlines began doing similar training.  Now, all crew members have opportunities for their opinions to be heard during emergency situations.  Portland based author and air plane safety expert Julie Whipple said, “That crash killed ten, but may have saved thousands because of the changes it caused in the industry.”

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