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United Airlines flight 173 crash-landed on December 28, 1978. Of the 189 people on board eight passengers and two crew members died. What makes this accident all the more tragic is why it crashed. It was not an act of terrorism or the result of a major malfunction. It was poor communication between the flight crew and forgetting the basics.

A very experienced pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer flew the plane. It departed Denver at 2:47 p.m. for a routine flight to Portland, Oregon and was scheduled to land at 5:17. For a flight of this distance and duration the aircraft required 31,000 lbs. of fuel. It had 46,700 lbs. in its tanks – in other words, way more than enough to complete the flight with plenty to spare.


As the plane approached Portland, the crew lowered its landing gear and heard a loud thump. Although the subsequent NTSB investigation determined that the gear had lowered and locked properly (the noise was caused by a corroded part that allowed the gear to fall quickly) the crew was concerned that the gear was not in place. The accident had apparently also broken a circuit, which would illuminate a green light in the cockpit indicating the gear had lowered and locked successfully. Concerned that the gear had not locked, the captain aborted the landing in order to ascertain the extent of the problem (one that did not exist, although the crew did not know that for sure at the time).

It is at this point that the tragedy truly began to unfold. The captain became so absorbed in trying to ascertain if the landing gear was in place that he lost track of time and stopped paying attention to the fuel gauge. For a variety of reasons, the other crew members on the flight deck failed to inform the captain in an assertive manner about the dwindling fuel supply. Only when the flight engineer called out that the engines were flaming out (shutting down) did the captain realize the extent of the problem. By that time it was too late. Although the captain did the best he could under the circumstances, and managed to land the plane in a populated suburb of the airport without killing anyone on the ground, he did lose eight passengers and two crew members, including the flight engineer. Regrettably, had the captain and crew kept their eye on the most basic of instruments, the fuel gauge, this accident would never have happened.

All leaders should take the lessons of this tragedy to heart. Leaders have many things to keep track of and think about simultaneously. But in every leadership situation there are basic gauges and indicators that must never be ignored. The key is to identify and keep of track of them, while doing everything else that must be done. The Torah at the end of this week’s parsha and the beginning of next week’s gives us an example.

Although the Torah begins with the glory of creation, humankind manages to fall short of G-d’s expectations right from the start. Whether it was Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree, Cain killing his brother, or the people at large beginning to worship other gods, the trajectory of human development was constantly aimed downward. Yet throughout this time, while punishments were meted out, G-d’s forbearance dominated. The world kept going. Near the end of the parsha the Torah relates (6:5), “G-d saw the vast evil of man in the land…” It was only at this point that humanity’s fate becomes sealed.

What was it that G-d saw that convinced Him to destroy the world? Before we answer the question, we should point out that it seems that throughout this time G-d was looking. It wasn’t that all of a sudden G-d decided to look. Rather, there was some “gauge” of sorts He was constantly checking and only now did He see that the gauge indicated a critical situation had been reached. The gauge that G-d was watching was the one that displayed societal cohesion.


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Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College. Comments can be emailed to him at