Jumbo jet landed at tiny rural airport by mistake

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By Finn J.D. John
February 4, 2018

IT WAS ABOUT 4 a.m. on August 12, 1962, and United Air Lines Flight 861, a red-eye flight from Chicago to Portland, had just landed. The 81 passengers were unbuckling their seatbelts and peering out the windows of their big four-engine Douglas DC-8 into the pastoral darkness outside. One or two lights twinkled here and there, and the shadowy hulk of a few low buildings and pickup trucks could be seen in the distance.

Inside the plane, there was a murmur of confused conversation. “This is Portland?” someone asked incredulously.

Passenger Dr. Richard Gorrell of Maquoketa, Iowa, was also surprised. He knew Portland was a small city compared with Chicago. But this “small, shoddy airport,” as he phrased it, seemed too tiny for any city to be flying jet airliners in and out of. It also seemed deserted. Did they close the airport for the night in Portland, along with the deli and the grocery stores?

A United Air Lines DC-8 at the San Francisco International Airport in 1963. (Image: Jon Proctor)

And the landing run had seemed unusually short. The instant the plane had touched down, Gorrell had noticed, “the pilot set the brakes full on and reversed the motors. You could feel the rubber scraping off.”

Then the rising murmur of baffled conversation was cut short by a rattle from the cabin loudspeakers. “Uh, ladies and gentlemen, we have inadvertently landed at Troutdale Field by mistake,” a man’s voice announced sheepishly.

AND INDEED, THERE was much to feel sheepish about. Troutdale Airfield is about 10 miles east of the Portland International Airport, so it really doesn’t need to cater to jet traffic, and consequently it doesn’t.

“The two air fields are markedly different in appearance,” the Oregonian’s reporter noted, with what sure reads like ironic understatement. “Portland International has four runways around a huge, new airport terminal. Troutdale has a single runway and was deserted at the early morning hour when the jet came down.”

It’s a public-use airfield, used as a home base by many Portland pilots who prefer not to deal with the traffic of PDX. On any given day, a planespotter loafing at the Dairy Queen on Graham Road might see Pipers, Cessnas, and Beechcrafts flying in and out, with occasionally something larger. But now, dominating one end of the 4,600-foot airstrip stood the hulking form of a Douglas DC-8 — one of the largest aircraft to fly in and out of PDX on its 8,800-foot runways, and certainly the biggest thing that had ever landed at little Troutdale Airfield.

Troutdale Airfield manager Les Meyer was in bed when the big jet began its landing, but got up fast when he heard it coming in. Troutdale is occasionally used as an emergency landing spot for pilots who, after taking off from PDX, have trouble. That’s what Meyer assumed was going on, as the mammoth jet came in to land on the pint-size landing strip.

It was, he said, a normal landing, and a demonstration of great skill by the pilot, who, Meyer told the Oregonian reporter, “rode his brakes hard and reversed his engines but never looked like he was in any trouble.”

It seems likely Meyer was wrong about the pilot not being in any trouble, although United Air Lines’ human-resources department didn’t share any of those details with the newspapers.

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A pilot’s-eye view of the Troutdale Airport as it appears today. (Image: Port of Portland)


AT THE AIRPORT, the baffled passengers were unloaded. Soon a fleet of taxicabs arrived to transport them the 12 or so highway miles to PDX.

The DC-8’s pilot, Capt. S.R. Whipple, told airport manager Meyer the plane broke from cloud cover and the runway was directly in front of him. The Portland tower having cleared him for landing, he just lined up and landed on it, only realizing it was the wrong airport after it was too late to abort.

Capt. Whipple, not surprisingly, hastened to catch the first flight back to Chicago and arranged to keep himself unavailable for questioning when the newspapers started to call.

Meanwhile, United Air Lines had a bit of a problem. Landing a DC-8 on a 4,600-foot airstrip had been barely do-able. What were the chances they’d be able to take off again?

Pretty good, they figured; but they sent a ringer in to do the job. Bartlett Stephens, a pilot from Seattle, arrived later in the morning to take it on. In the meantime, the big jet was pumped almost dry of fuel — after all, it only had to fly 10 miles — and everything that could be removed without unbolting stuff was hauled off the airplane. The newspapers do not specify whether they removed any seats, but there were rumors that this was done as well. A fence was removed at one end, and the grass burned to extend the runway as much as possible. The plane was positioned as far back on the east end of the runway as possible, its huge tail hanging out over the middle of Graham Road. Nervous families living in houses under the plane’s anticipated takeoff path called their insurance agents to make sure they were covered and hurried to find someplace else to be when the big jet made its attempt to get off the ground.

An aerial view of Portland International Airport. (Image: Max Schwarz)

Soon, all was in readiness, and at 12:15 Stephens gave the big jet full power and it started rolling forward over the charred grass. All the preparation paid off, as the big jet rotated a little over halfway down the tiny runway and climbed rapidly and uneventfully into the sky. A few minutes later it was touching down at PDX, where it belonged.

So … what happened?

Since no one was hurt and several people were severely embarrassed, details were kept close to the vest. A follow-up article in the Oregonian quoted a United Air Lines spokesman saying the company was conducting an investigation and “might” hold a hearing later on. The article added that Capt. Whipple had been grounded pending the investigation.

A few days later, the Federal Aviation Administration pulled Whipple’s ticket for a 30-day suspension, and suspended his co-pilot for two weeks. How this embarrassing mistake affected the two pilots’ employment prospects at United Air Lines was never disclosed; but it’s likely both survived the episode with their jobs intact. Whipple was a senior pilot, meaning he’d been flying for United for more than 25 years, and was highly respected by his fellow pilots there.

But, at the very least, those fellow pilots must have enjoyed having something this juicy to razz him about at future company events.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian: 13 Aug, 16 Aug, and 19 Aug 1962; Madeira Daily Tribune (Madeira, Calif.), 13 Aug 1962; correspondence with Stan Biles of Blue River, Ore.)

TAGS: #EVENT #MultnomahCounty #Troutdale #JumboJet #DC8 #UnitedAirLines #Oops #PlaneCrash #LuckyBreak #PDX #Bonehead


Background photo of Crater Lake in wintertime as seen from the rim was made by WolfmanSF in 2012. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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