The Crash Of United Airlines Flight 2885

In sophisticated airliners that take months, if not years, to learn to fly, members of the flight crew inside the cockpit have dedicated roles and responsibilities. These roles allow for the maintenance of safe flight to be observed at all times. However, in a shocking incident in 1983, the crew operating a United Airlines cargo flight decided to switch roles. This bizarre decision cost the lives of the three crew members involved and the total loss of the aircraft they were tasked to fly.

Background to United flight 2885

On January 11th, 1983, United Airlines (United) flight 2885 was scheduled to fly cargo overnight from Cleveland, Ohio to Los Angeles, California, with a planned stopover in Detroit, Michigan. The flight was operated by a Douglas DC-8-54F, known within United as the ‘Jet Freighter’. On the flight deck that night were three flight crew members – Captain William Todd (aged 55), First Officer James Day (51), and Flight Engineer Robert Lee (50).

Timeline of flight UA2885

United flight 2885 on the day of the accident was to be flown by a 14-year old DC-8 with tail number N8053U. This aircraft was delivered new to United in October 1968. The plane departed from Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) at 22:15 CST to position initially to Cleveland (CLE), where it would become flight 2885 before its onward journey.

Flight 2885 subsequently departed Cleveland at 01:15 on January 11th, heading back to Detroit for refueling and additional cargo to be loaded before heading to Los Angeles. The aircraft landed back at Detroit at 01:52, and once the turnaround was complete, began its take-off run once more at 02:51, supposedly heading to the US west coast and its final port of call, Los Angeles International Airport ( LAX).


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A bizarre discussion

Before the second departure of the night from Detroit, however, the flight crew had held a rather unusual conversation as the cargo was loaded in the aircraft hold behind them. Details on this conversation would only come out following the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that resulted from the events following that conversation.

During the conversation, while the pilots were discussing the next sector in the flight deck with their flight engineer, the captain asked the first officer if he would consider switching seats with the flight engineer to allow him to perform the take-off.


For clarification, such actions were strictly contrary to the rules laid down by both United Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration. The first officer accepted the proposition, although the flight engineer expressed his concerns regarding this absurd proposal. However, he agreed to switch seats with the first officer, following further persuasion.


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The fatal departure

Following a standard take-off roll, eyewitnesses described that the nose of the aircraft pitched up to an unusually high position. This high angle of attack caused temporary engine surges caused by the lack of airflow into the front of the engines.

Witnesses on the ground reported seeing intermittent fire eruptions from the engines. Having maintained this high nose-up pitch, the aircraft began a gradual right roll, eventually entering a condition where forward flight was no longer sustainable.

The aircraft stalled at an altitude of approximately 1,000 feet, the wings reached a bank angle of almost 90-degrees, and the plane fell to the ground, exploding on impact, and was destroyed.


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Causation

The NTSB found that the direct reason for the abnormally nose-up position was an excessively high stabilizer trim setting. This, it concluded confusion, was likely caused by the resulting from the switching of seats between the crew members. In the resulting confusion, the crew failed to reset the trim setting while performing their routine take-off checks, an issue that the first officer had been reported to make on occasions in the past.

Taking off at night, with no visual references, the inexperienced flight engineer did not manage to correct the extreme nose-up attitude presented to him in time. This led to engine surges, the aircraft banking, and the eventual onset of an unrecoverable stall.

The NTSB could not determine why the captain did not manage to correct the situation. One possibility proposed by the accident report is that the flight engineer froze on the controls as he put the DC-8 into a gradual bank, with opposite inputs from the captain having no effect on the stabilizer.


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An unqualified and inexperienced flyer

The captain’s decision to allow the flight engineer to perform the take-off was considered a factor contributing significantly to the accident. As the investigators later discovered, the flight engineer had embarked on a DC-8 first officer upgrade training course in June 1979. During his attendance on that course, however, the instructors found his flying abilities unacceptable, and his training was terminated two months later .

The flight engineer subsequently resumed his first officer training in February 1980 to fly on the airline’s Boeing 737 fleet. Although it was found that his fling abilities had improved, they remained inadequate. The NTSB reported that United’s training department said the “flight engineer’s attitude could not be better, and he is a very hard worker. However, he has not made normal progress as a first officer in his first full year.”


After several further failed en-route and ground-based proficiency checks, the training manager at United and the flight engineer agreed that he would not bid for any other pilot vacancies. He decided to remain a flight engineer for the remainder of his career.


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Not just a one off event

An alarming point of note was uncovered by the NTSB during its investigation of this tragic event. Incredibly, other United pilots anonymously admitted to investigators that swapping seats and flight engineers performing take-offs and landings, although a rare occurrence, was not unheard of on ferry or cargo flights. Additional rules were put in place following the loss of flight 2885 to prevent such an event from ever happening again.


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