United Airlines Flight 859

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United Airlines Flight 859
Accident summary
Date July 11, 1961
Summary Mechanical failure combined with pilot error
Site Denver, Colorado USA
Passengers 115
Crew 7
Injuries (non-fatal) 84
Fatalities 18 (1 on the ground)
Survivors 105
Aircraft type Douglas DC-8-20
Operator United Airlines
Registration N8040U
Flight origin Omaha-Eppley Airfield, Nebraska
Destination Denver-Stapleton International Airport, Colorado

United Airlines Flight 859 was a scheduled passenger flight that crashed on July 11, 1961 during landing at Stapleton International Airport, Denver, Colorado. The aircraft, a Douglas DC-8 airliner, slammed into several airport vehicles, including construction equipment, and caught fire, killing 18 (including one on the ground) and injuring 84 from a total of 122 people on board.

Final moments[edit]

The aircraft suffered a hydraulic failure while en route. Preparation was made for what was expected to be a routine landing, after the crew followed the checklist for hydraulic failure. The plane touched down normally, but when the engines' thrust levers were moved to the engines' reverse position, the reverser buckets for the engines on the left failed to deploy correctly. The buckets must be closed, to direct the engine thrust to a forward direction.[1]

That failure caused those two left-side engines to generate forward thrust, while the right-side engines generated reverse thrust. The plane immediately began to veer to the right, as a result of that asymmetrical thrust. All the tires blew out on the right main gear, after the plane left the runway and hit a new taxiway, still under construction. The nose gear collapsed, and the fuel tank on the right wing was ruptured, starting the fatal fire. The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) report also stated that a contributing factor was the failure of the first officer to monitor the reverse thrust indicator lights, when he applied reverse thrust.[2]

Carbon monoxide poisoning was the cause of death for 16 of the passengers, who were not able to evacuate quickly enough. One elderly woman broke both ankles during the evacuation, and later died from shock.[3]

Emergency response[edit]

Firefighting and rescue efforts were initiated almost immediately, but the airport fire department was understaffed and improperly equipped with the vehicles they were using from the 1940s. Their efforts were further hampered by a delay in getting assistance from the firefighting facilities at a nearby airbase, and from those in the city of Denver.

It was later found that seven months before the crash an FAA inspector had ruled that the airport fire department was deficient in emergency equipment, particularly water capacity, rate of discharge for foam, etc.

The fire crews were, however, praised on a personal level for their efforts.

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