|Date||January 11, 1983|
|Summary||Crashed after takeoff due to pilot error|
|Site||Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport |
Romulus, Michigan, United States
|Aircraft type||Douglas DC-8F-54|
|Flight origin||Cleveland Hopkins International Airport|
|Stopover||Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport|
|Destination||Los Angeles International Airport|
United Airlines Flight 2885 was a scheduled cargo flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, with stopover in Detroit. On January 11, 1983, a DC-8 operating Flight 2885 crashed after take-off from Detroit, killing all 3 crew. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation determined that the cause for the crash was pilot error.
The aircraft involved in the accident, a 14-year-old Douglas DC-8F-54, registration N8053U, departed Detroit Metropolitan Airport at 22:15 CST on January 10, 1983, operating United Airlines Flight 2894 bound for Cleveland, Ohio. At Cleveland, the flight became United 2885; the DC-8 departed Cleveland at 01:15 on January 11. It arrived at Detroit airport at 01:52; after a cargo turnaround and refueling, the aircraft began its takeoff roll at 02:51. After taking off, the witnesses described that the nose of the aircraft pitched up to an unusually high position, causing temporary engine surges (witnesses on the ground reported occasional fire eruptions from the engines); soon after, the DC-8 began a gradual right roll, eventually entering an upset condition. As the wings reached an almost 90-degree bank, and at an altitude of approximately 1,000 feet (300 m), the aircraft stalled and fell to the ground, exploding on impact.
The three crew members were Captain William S. Todd (55); First Officer James G. Day (51); and Flight Engineer Robert E. Lee (50). All three were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation revealed that, during the cargo turnaround at Detroit, the pilots had a conversation in the cockpit; at one point, the captain asked the first officer if he would like to trade seats with the flight engineer and allow him to perform the takeoff (contrary to both United Airlines and Federal Aviation Administration rules). The first officer accepted the proposition; the flight engineer did express his doubts, but eventually relented and switched seats.
As the investigators found, the flight engineer had entered a DC-8 first officer upgrade training in June 1979; however, the instructors found his abilities less than adequate and the training was terminated two months later. The flight engineer resumed his first officer training in February 1980, this time for the Boeing 737; while improving, his abilities were still inadequate—as his instructor stated, "his attitude could not be better and he is a very hard worker, however, he has not made normal progress in his first full year as a first officer." After several failed en-route and proficiency checks, the training manager and the flight engineer made an agreement not to bid anymore for pilot vacancies and remain a flight engineer for the balance of his career.
The direct reason for an abnormally nose-up position was found to be an excessively high stabilizer trim setting (7.5 units airplane nose-up (ANU)); likely, in the confusion due to switching seats, the pilots failed to reset the trim setting while performing takeoff checklists. (It was reported the first officer made this mistake occasionally.) Taking off at night, with no visual references, the inexperienced flight engineer did not manage to correct the attitude in time, leading to engine surges, aircraft banking and eventually an upset and an unrecoverable stall. It is not known why the captain did not manage to correct the situation. One possibility is that the flight engineer froze on the controls as he put the DC-8 into a gradual bank, and the opposite inputs from the captain had no effect on the movement of the stabilizer. The captain's decision to allow the flight engineer to perform the takeoff was considered a contributing factor in the accident.
During an investigation, other United pilots anonymously admitted that swapping seats and flight engineers performing takeoffs and/or landings, while a rare occurrence, were not unheard of on ferry or cargo flights.