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Air Florida Flight 90, an Air Florida flight of a Boeing 737-222 airliner, crashed into the 14th Street Bridgemarker across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.marker on January 13, 1982 immediately after takeoff in a severe snowstorm from Washington National Airportmarker in Arlington County, Virginiamarker.

The aircraft carried 74 passengers and five crew members when it crashed during the failed takeoff attempt. All but five occupants died. The aircraft struck the 14th Street Bridge, which carries Interstate Highway 395 between Washington, D.C., and Arlington County, Virginiamarker. It crushed seven occupied vehicles on the bridge and destroyed of guard rail before it plunged through the ice into the Potomac River. The crash occurred less than two miles (3 km) from the White Housemarker and within view of both the Jefferson Memorialmarker and The Pentagonmarker.

The accident killed 78 people, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. A few survivors were rescued from the icy river by civilians and professionals; President Ronald Reagan commended these acts during his State of the Union speech a few days later. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of the accident was pilot error. The pilots failed to switch on the engines' internal ice protection systems, used reverse thrust in a snow storm prior to takeoff, and failed to abort the takeoff even after detecting a power problem while taxiing and visually identifying ice and snow buildup on the wings.

Weather conditions

On January 13, Washington National Airportmarker (located in Arlington County, Virginiamarker, immediately across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.) was closed by a heavy snowstorm, then reopened at noon under marginal conditions as the snowfall began to slacken. That same day, the crew of Air Florida Flight 90 had left Miami International Airportmarker (MIA) in Miami, Floridamarker at 11:00 a.m. EST and arrived at National Airport about 1:45 p.m. EST.

That afternoon, the plane was to return south to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airportmarker (FLL) in Dania, Floridamarker with an intermediate stop at Tampa International Airportmarker (TPA), Tampa, Floridamarker. The scheduled departure time was delayed about 1 hour 45 minutes due to the temporary closing of the airport. As the plane was readied for departure, a moderate snowfall continued and the air temperature was .

Improper deicing procedures

The aircraft was de-iced with a mixture of heated water and monopropylene glycol by American Airlines, under a ground service agreement with Air Florida. That agreement specified covers for the pitots/static ports and engine inlets had to be used, but the American Airlines employees did not comply with those rules. Two different operators, who chose widely different mixture percentages, deiced the left and right sides of the plane, respectively. Subsequent testing of the deicing truck showed that "the mixture dispensed differed substantially from the mixture selected" (18% actual vs. 30% selected). The inaccurate mixture was the result of the replacement of the standard Trump nozzle, "…which is specially modified and calibrated, with a nonmodified, commercially available nozzle." The operator had no means to determine if the proportioning valves were operating properly because no "mix monitor" was installed on the nozzle.

Delays, poor decisions, crash

The plane had trouble leaving the gate when the ground services tow motor could not get traction on the ice. For approximately 30 to 90 seconds, the crew attempted to back away from the gate using the reverse thrust of the engines, which proved futile. Boeing operations bulletins had warned against using reverse thrust in those kinds of conditions.

Eventually, a tug ground unit properly equipped with snow chains was used to push the aircraft back from the gate. After leaving the gate, the aircraft waited in a taxi line with many other aircraft for 49 minutes before reaching the takeoff runway. The pilot apparently decided not to return to the gate for reapplication of de-icing, fearing that the flight's departure would be even further delayed. More snow and ice accumulated on the wings during that period, and the crew was aware of that fact when they decided to make the takeoff. Heavy snow was falling during their takeoff roll at 3:59 p.m. EST.

Even though it was freezing and was snowing, the crew did not activate the engine anti-ice system. Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder determined that, during the departure checklist, the copilot announced and the pilot confirmed that the plane's own engine anti-icing system was turned off. This system uses heat from the engines to prevent sensors from freezing and providing inaccurate readings.

During the plane's taxiing, the cockpit voice recorder picked up the following conversation between the captain and first officer, in which they discussed the icing situation.

Adding to the plane's troubles was the pilots' decision to maneuver closely behind a DC-9 that was taxiing just ahead of the Air Florida aircraft prior to takeoff, due to their mistaken belief that the warmth from the DC-9's engines would melt the snow and ice that had accumulated on Flight 90's wings. This action — which went specifically against flight manual recommendations for an icing situation — actually contributed to additional icing on the 737. By sitting behind the preceding aircraft, the exhaust gases melted the snow on the wings. During take off, instead of falling off the plane, this slush mixture then froze on the wings' leading edges and the engine inlet nose cone.

Neither the captain nor the first officer had much experience flying in snowy, cold weather. Additionally, the captain, Larry Wheaton, had failed a flight simulator test the previous year with one of his instructors citing Wheaton's unfamiliarity with flight rules and regulations. He took a repeat test soon after and passed.

As it turned out, the failure to operate the plane's engine anti-icing system caused exactly what could be expected to happen: the engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust indicators provided false high readings — when the pilots thought they had throttled up to the correct take-off EPR of 2.04, the actual EPR was only 1.70. The aircraft traveled almost ½ mile (800 m) further down the runway than is customary before liftoff was accomplished. Survivors of the crash indicated the trip over the runway was extremely rough, with one survivor saying that he feared that they would not get airborne and would "fall off the end of the runway".

As the plane began its takeoff roll the first officer noted several times to the captain that the readings he was seeing on the instrument panel did not seem to reflect reality (he was referring to the fact that the plane did not seem to have developed as much power as it needed for takeoff, despite the instruments indicating otherwise.) The captain dismissed the first officer's concerns and let the takeoff proceed. Investigators later determined that there was plenty of time and space on the runway for the captain to have aborted the takeoff, and criticized his refusal to listen to his first officer, who was correct that the instrument panel readings were wrong. The pilot was told not to delay because another aircraft was on final approach 2.5 miles (4 km) out using the same runway.

The following is a transcript of Flight 90's cockpit voice recorder during the plane's acceleration down the runway. It is evident that the first officer saw a problem with the instrumentation and that the captain shrugged off his concerns. (CAM-1 is the captain, CAM-2 is the first officer)

As the plane became briefly airborne, the flight recorder picked up the following from the cockpit, with the sound of the stick-shaker (an instrument that warns that the plane is in danger of stalling) in the background:

Although the aircraft did manage to become airborne, it attained a maximum altitude of just before it began losing altitude. Recorders later indicated that the aircraft was airborne for just 30 seconds. At 4:01 p.m. EST it crashed into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River, from the end of the runway.

It hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, and tore away of the bridge's rail and of the bridge's wall. The wrecked aircraft then plunged into the freezing Potomac River. It fell between two of the three spans of the 14th Street Bridge, between the I-395 northbound span (the Rochambeau Memorial Bridge) and the HOV north and southbound spans, about offshore. All but the tail section quickly became submerged.

Of the people on board the aircraft:
  • Four of the five crew members, including both pilots, died
  • One crew member was seriously injured
  • 70 passengers died.

Of the motorists on the bridge involved:
  • 4 received fatal injuries
  • 1 received serious injuries
  • 3 received minor injuries

Clinging to the tail section of the broken airliner with five passengers in the ice-choked Potomac River, flight attendant Kelly Duncan inflated the only flotation device they could find and passed it to one of the more severely injured passengers, Nikki Felch. Joe Stiley assisted fellow survivor Priscilla Tirado, and was trying to tow her to shore when the Park Police helicopter returned to try to pull them to safety.

Emergency response and rescue of survivors

Many Federal Government offices in downtown Washington had closed early the day of the crash in response to quickly developing blizzard conditions. Thus, there was a massive backup of traffic on almost all of the city's roads, making it almost impossible for ambulances to reach the crash site. The United States Coast Guard's Capstan (WYTL 65601) (a 65-foot harbor tugboat) and its crew were based nearby, and their duties include ice-breaking and responding to water rescues. The Capstan was considerably further downriver on another search-and-rescue mission. Emergency ground response was greatly hampered by ice-covered roads and gridlocked traffic. Ambulances attempting to reach the scene were even driven down the sidewalk in front of the White Housemarker. Rescuers who reached the site were unable to assist survivors in the water because they did not have adequate equipment to reach them. Below-freezing waters and heavy ice made swimming out to them all but impossible. Multiple attempts to throw a makeshift lifeline (made out of belts and any other things available that could be tied together) out to the survivors proved ineffective. The rescue attempts by emergency officials and witnesses were recorded and broadcast live by local news reporters.

One man, Roger Olian, a sheet-metal foreman at St Elizabeth'smarker, a Washington hospital for the mentally ill, was on his way home across the 14th Street bridge in his truck when he heard a man yelling that there was an aircraft in the water. He was the first to jump into the water to attempt to contact the survivors. At the same time, several military personnel from the Pentagon, Steve Raynes, Aldo De La Cruz, and Steve Bell, ran down to the water's edge to help Olian.

At this point, flight controllers were only aware that the plane had disappeared from radar and did not respond to radio calls, but had no idea what had happened or where the plane was.

At approximately 4:20 p.m. EST, Eagle 1, a United States Park Police Bell 206L-1 Long Ranger helicopter, N22PP, based at the "Eagles Nest" at Anacostia Parkmarker in Washington, D.C. and manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. Windsor arrived and began attempting to assist the survivors to shore. At great risk to themselves, the crew worked close to the river surface, at one time coming so close to the ice-clogged river that the helicopter's skids went beneath the surface of the water.

The helicopter crew lowered a line to survivors to tow them to shore. First to receive the line was Bert Hamilton, who was treading water about ten feet from the floating tail. The helicopter pilot moved him across the ice, while avoiding the sides of the bridge. Some fire rescue personnel had arrived but military personnel and civilians were key in pulling the survivors from the shore up to the waiting ambulances. The helicopter returned to the aircraft's tail, and this time Arland D. Williams Jr., sometimes referred to as "the sixth passenger", caught the line. Instead of wrapping it around himself, however, he passed it to flight attendant Kelly Duncan. On its third trip back to the wreckage, the helicopter lowered two lifelines, fearing that the survivors in the water had only a few minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. Williams again caught one of the lines, and again passed it on, this time to Joe Stiley, the most severely injured survivor. Stiley slipped the line around his waist and grabbed Priscilla Tirado, who was hysterical, having lost her husband and baby. Patricia Felch took the second line. Before it reached the shore, both Priscilla Tirado and Patricia Felch lost their grip and fell back into the water.

United States Coast Guard Capstan was too far away on another search and rescue mission downriver to assist the 6 initial survivors of Air Florida Flight 90 which crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and then the ice-choked Potomac River on January 13, 1982.
Capstan is seen here with another smaller Coast Guard boat helping with recovery of bodies and salvage operations.

Priscilla Tirado was too weak to grab the line when the helicopter dropped the line to her again. A watching bystander, Congressional Budget Office assistant Lenny Skutnik, stripped off his coat and boots, and in short sleeves, dove into the icy water and swam out to assist her. The helicopter then proceeded to where Patricia Felch had fallen, and paramedic Gene Windsor dropped from the safety of the helicopter into the water to attach a line to her. By the time the helicopter crew could return for Williams, both he and the plane's tail section had disappeared beneath the icy surface. He had been in the water for twenty-nine minutes. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered. According to the coroner, Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning.

As the response of emergency crews to the scene was frustrated by the traffic on surface streets, a half hour after the plane crashed, the Washington Metromarker suffered its first fatal subway crash which meant that Washington's nearest airport, one of its main bridges in or out of the city, and one of its busiest subway lines were all closed simultaneously, paralyzing the Washington, D.C. area.

Responses in the news media

The first member of the news media to arrive was Chester Panzer of WRC-TV. He and a crew member had been stuck in traffic in their news vehicle on the George Washington Parkway (returning from another story) when the plane crashed within a few hundred yards of them. Minutes later, they were shooting video footage of the crash scene, showing wreckage and survivors in the water along with the arrival of first responders. Chester captured Lenny Skutnik's memorable plunge to pull Priscilla Tirado from the icy water. His work earned him a position as a 1983 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for spot news photography.

News media outlets followed the story with diligence. Notably, The Washington Post published a story about the unidentified survivor of the impact (the "sixth passenger") who handed the lifeline to others and apparently drowned before he could be rescued himself.

He was about 50 years old, one of half a dozen survivors clinging to twisted wreckage bobbing in the icy Potomac when the first helicopter arrived.
To the copter's two-man Park Police crew he seemed the most alert.
Life vests were dropped, then a flotation ball.
The man passed them to the others.
On two occasions, the crew recalled last night, he handed away a life line from the hovering machine that could have dragged him to safety.
The helicopter crew who rescued five people, the only persons who survived from the jetliner, lifted a woman to the riverbank, then dragged three more persons across the ice to safety.
Then the life line saved a woman who was trying to swim away from the sinking wreckage and the helicopter pilot, Donald W.
Usher, returned to the scene but the man was gone.

One day after the crash, Howard Stern pretended to call Air Florida during his radio show on WWDC-FM and asked if the 14th Street Bridge would be a "permanent stop". Stern later stated that he was ridiculing the airline for allowing such an error to occur.

NTSB conclusion

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was pilot error stating that the flight crew’s failure to use engine anti-ice during ground operation and takeoff, their decision to take off with snow/ice on the airfoil surfaces of the aircraft, and the captain’s failure to reject the takeoff during the early stage when his attention was called to anomalous engine instrument readings.

"Contributing to the accident were the prolonged ground delay between de-icing and the receipt of ATC takeoff clearance during which the aircraft was exposed to continual precipitation, the known inherent pitch up characteristics of the B-737 aircraft when the leading edge is contaminated with even small amounts of snow or ice, and the limited experience of the flight crew in jet transport winter operations."

Honoring heroism

The "sixth passenger", who had survived the crash and had repeatedly given up the rescue lines to other survivors before drowning, was later identified as 46-year-old bank examiner Arland D. Williams Jr. The repaired span of the 14th Street Bridge complexmarker over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been officially named the "Rochambeau Bridge", was renamed the "Arland D.marker Williams Jr. Memorial Bridgemarker" in his honor. The Citadelmarker in South Carolina, from which he graduated in 1957, has several memorials to him. In 2003, the new Arland D. Williams Jr. Elementary School was dedicated in his hometown of Mattoonmarker in Coles County, Illinoismarker.

Civilians Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik received the United States Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal. Arland D. Williams also received the award posthumously. Skutnik was introduced to the joint session of the U.S. Congress during President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech later that month.

The United States Coast Guard awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal to two crewmen of the U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1. The U.S. Park Service is part of the United States Department of the Interiormarker. Pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. Windsor also received the Department of the Interior's Valor Award from Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt in a special ceremony soon afterward. Usher is now Superintendent of the U.S. Park Police Training Academy in Brunswick, Georgiamarker.

Roger Olian, Lennie Skutnik, Donald Usher, and Melvin Windsor each received the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal.

Kelly Duncan, the only surviving flight attendant, was recognized in the NTSB accident report for her "unselfish act" of giving the only lifevest she could find to another passenger.

Regulatory and procedure changes

The investigation following the crash, especially regarding the failure of the pilot to respond to crew concerns about the de-icing procedure, led to a number of reforms in pilot training regulations. It became a widely used case study for both air crews and rescue workers. Another result of the accident was the development of an improved rescue harness for use in helicopter recoveries.

See also


  1. [Air Florida Flight 90 Accident Report: National Transportation Safety Board (pp. 57, 58)
  2. [Air Florida Flight 90 Accident Report: National Transportation Safety Board (pg. 59)
  3. [Air Florida Flight 90 Accident Report: National Transportation Safety Board (pg. 80)
  4. "A Hero - Passenger Aids Others, Then Dies." The Washington Post. January 14, 1982.
  5. Stern, Howard, The History of Howard Stern, "Mr. Stern Goes to Washington", Sirius Satellite Radio, December 2007.


  • Trivers, R. L. & Newton, H. P. The crash of flight 90: doomed by self-deception? Science Digest (November 1982): pp 66,67,111.

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