Air Florida Flight 90

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Air Florida Flight 90 was a scheduled U.S. domestic passenger flight from Washington National Airport to Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport with an intermediate stopover at Tampa International Airport. On January 13, 1982, the Boeing 737-200 registered as N62AF, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River. The aircraft had originally been purchased by United Airlines in 1969 and flown with the registration number of N9050U. It was sold to Air Florida in 1980.

The aircraft struck the 14th Street Bridge, which carries Interstate 395 between Washington, D.C. and Arlington County. It crushed seven occupied vehicles on the bridge and destroyed 97 feet (30 m) 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 House and within view of both the Jefferson Memorial and The Pentagon. The aircraft was carrying 74 passengers and five crewmembers. Four passengers and one flight attendant survived the crash. Four motorists from the bridge were killed. The 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 (NTSB) 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 snowstorm 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.


The Aircraft involved Boeing 737-222 registered N62AF was manufactured in 1969 and previously flown by United Airlines registered N9050U. The plane has been recorded over 27,000 hours before the crash.

Cockpit crew

The pilot, Captain Larry Wheaton, age 34, had been hired by Air Florida in October 1978 as a first officer. He upgraded to captain two years later in August 1980. At the time of the accident, he had approximately 8,300 total flight hours, with 2,322 hours of commercial jet experience (all logged at Air Florida). He had logged 1,752 hours on the Boeing 737, the accident aircraft type, with 1,100 of those hours as captain.

Wheaton was described by fellow pilots as a quiet person, with good operational skills and knowledge, who had operated well in high-workload flying situations. His leadership style was described as similar to other pilots. However, on May 8, 1980, he was suspended after failing a Boeing 737 company line check and was found to be unsatisfactory in the following areas: adherence to regulations, checklist usage, flight procedures such as departures and cruise control and approaches and landings. However, he resumed his duties after passing a retest on August 27, 1980. On April 24, 1981, the captain received an unsatisfactory grade on a company recurrent proficiency check when he showed deficiencies in memory items, knowledge of aircraft systems and aircraft limitations. Three days later, he satisfactorily passed a proficiency recheck.

The first officer, Roger Pettit, age 31, was hired by Air Florida on October 3, 1980, as a first officer on the Boeing 737. At the time of the accident, he had approximately 3,353 total flight hours, with 992 accumulated at Air Florida, all on the 737. From October 1977 to October 1980, he had been a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, accumulating 669 flight hours as a flight examiner, instructor pilot and ground instructor in an operational F-15 unit.

The first officer was described by personal friends and pilots as a witty, bright, outgoing individual with an excellent command of physical and mental skills in aircraft piloting. Those who had flown with him during stressful flight operations said that during those times he remained the same witty, sharp individual, “who knew his limitations.” Several persons said that he was the type of pilot who would not hesitate to speak up if he knew something specific was wrong with flight operations.

Alternating the role of “primary pilot” between the PIC (Pilot in Command, the Captain) and SIC (Second in Command, the First Officer) is customary in commercial airline operations, with pilots swapping roles after each leg. One pilot is designated the “Pilot Flying” (PF) and the other as “Pilot Not Flying” (PNF); however, the PIC retains the ultimate authority for all aircraft operations and safety. The first officer was on the controls as the pilot flying during the Air Florida Flight 90 accident.

Weather conditions

On January 13, 1982, Washington National Airport — located in Arlington County, Virginia, immediately across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. — was closed by a heavy snowstorm. It reopened at noon under marginal conditions as the snowfall began to slacken. The crew of Air Florida Flight 90 left Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida, at 11:00 a.m. EST and arrived at National Airport about 1:45 p.m. EST.

That afternoon, the plane was to return to Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport in Dania, Florida, with an intermediate stop at Tampa International Airport. The scheduled departure time was delayed about 1 hour and 45 minutes due to the temporary closing of Washington National Airport. As the plane was readied for departure, a moderate snowfall continued and the air temperature was 24 °F (−4 °C).

Improper deicing procedures

The Boeing 737 was deiced with a mixture of heated water and monopropylene glycol by American Airlines, under a ground service agreement with Air Florida. That agreement specified that 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. 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 deicing, 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 were 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 the temperature was freezing and it was snowing, the crew did not activate the engine anti-ice system. Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) 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, ensuring accurate readings.

Adding to the plane's troubles was the pilots' decision to maneuver closely behind a DC-9 that was taxiing just ahead of them 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. The exhaust gases from the other aircraft melted the snow on the wings, but during takeoff, instead of falling off the plane, this slush mixture froze on the wings' leading edges and the engine inlet nose cone.

Neither pilot had much experience flying in snowy, cold weather. The captain had made only eight takeoffs and landings in snowy conditions on the 737, and the first officer had flown in snow only twice.

The failure to operate the plane's engine anti-icing system caused the engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust indicators to provide false high readings. While the pilots thought they had throttled up to the correct takeoff EPR of 2.04, the actual EPR was only 1.70. The aircraft traveled almost half a 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".

Although the 737 did manage to become airborne, it attained a maximum altitude of just 352 feet (107 m) 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, 0.75 nautical miles (1,390 m) from the end of the runway. The plane hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, and tore away 97 feet (30 m) of the bridge's rail and 41 feet (12 m) of the bridge's wall. The aircraft then plunged into the freezing Potomac River. It fell between two of the three spans of the bridge, between the I-395 northbound span (the Rochambeau Bridge) and the HOV north- and southbound spans, about 200 feet (61 m) 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 of the 74 passengers died.
  • 17 of the dead passengers were believed to survive the impact, but their injuries prevented them from escaping.

Of the motorists on the bridge involved:

  • 4 sustained fatal injuries
  • 1 sustained serious injuries
  • 3 sustained minor injuries

Clinging to the tail section of the broken airliner with six 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, assisting fellow survivor Priscilla Tirado, was trying to tow her to shore when the United States Park Police helicopter assisting in the rescue returned to try to pull them to safety.

Emergency response and rescue of survivors

Many federal offices in downtown Washington had closed early that day 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 very difficult for ambulances to reach the crash site. The Coast Guard's 65-foot (20 m) harbor tugboat Capstan (WYTL 65601) and its crew were based nearby; their duties include icebreaking and responding to water rescues. The Capstan was considerably farther 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 House. 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 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 area news reporters, and as the accident occurred in the nation's capital, there were large numbers of media personnel on hand to provide quick and extensive coverage.

Roger Olian, a sheetmetal foreman at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a Washington psychiatric hospital, 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 reach 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.

He only traveled a few yards and came back, ice sticking to his body. We asked him to not try again, but he insisted. Someone grabbed some short rope and battery cables and he went out again, maybe only going 30 feet. We pulled him back. Someone had backed up their jeep and we picked him up and put him in there. All anyone could do was tell the survivors was to hold on not to give up hope. There were a few pieces of the plane on shore that were smoldering and you could hear the screams of the survivors. More people arrived near the shore from the bridge but nobody could do anything. The ice was broken up and there was no way to walk out there. It was so eerie, an entire plane vanished except for a tail section, the survivors and a few pieces of plane debris. The smell of jet fuel was everywhere and you could smell it on your clothes. The snow on the banks was easily two feet high and your legs and feet would fall deep into it every time you moved from the water.

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

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

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 plane's floating tail. The pilot pulled him across the ice to shore while avoiding the sides of the bridge. By then some fire/rescue personnel had arrived to join the military personnel and civilians who pulled Hamilton (and the next/last three survivors) from the water's edge up to 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. Williams, not able to unstrap himself from the wreckage, passed the line to flight attendant Kelly Duncan, who was towed to shore. On its third trip back to the wreckage, the helicopter lowered two lifelines, fearing that the remaining survivors had only a few minutes before succumbing to hypothermia. Williams, still strapped into the wreckage, passed one line to Joe Stiley, who was holding on to a panic-stricken and blinded (from jet fuel) Priscilla Tirado, who had lost her husband and baby. Stiley's co-worker, Nikki Felch, took the second line. As the helicopter pulled the three through the water and blocks of ice toward shore, both Tirado and Felch lost their grip and fell back into the water.

Priscilla Tirado was too weak to grab the line when the helicopter returned to her. 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 successfully pull her to shore. The helicopter then proceeded to where Felch had fallen, and paramedic Gene Windsor stepped out onto the helicopter skid and grabbed her by the clothing to lift her onto the skid with him, bringing her to shore. When the helicopter crew returned for Williams, the wreckage he was strapped into had rolled slightly, submerging him—according to the coroner, Williams was the only passenger to die by drowning. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered.

While the weather had caused an early start to Washington's rush hour traffic, frustrating the response time of emergency crews, the early rush hour also meant that trains on the Washington Metro were full when, just 30 minutes after Flight 90 crashed, the Metro suffered its first fatal crash at Federal Triangle station. This 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 entire metropolitan 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, returning from another story, had been stuck in traffic in their news vehicle on the George Washington Parkway 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 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist honors for spot news photography.

John Goldsmith, an offbeat reporter for WTOP-TV, happened to be at National Airport prior to the incident doing a story on the snowstorm and even caught footage of Flight 90 prior to takeoff. He was first on the air with the story.

News media outlets followed the story with diligence. Notably, The Washington Post published a story about the then-unidentified survivor of the crash, Arland D. Williams Jr., who had handed the lifeline to others and drowned before he could be rescued:

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 lifeline 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 lifeline 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.

NTSB investigation and conclusion

The 737 had broken into several large pieces upon impact. These were the nose and cockpit section, the cabin up to the wing attachment point, the cabin from behind the wings to the rear airstairs, and the empennage. Although actual impact speeds were low and well within survivability limits, the structural breakup of the fuselage and exposure to freezing water nonetheless proved fatal for all persons aboard the plane except those seated in the tail section. It was not possible to determine the position of the rudder, slats, elevators, and ailerons due to impact damage and the majority of the flight control system being destroyed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error, citing 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 deicing 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 complex over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been named the Rochambeau Bridge, was renamed the "Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge" in his honor. The Citadel 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 Mattoon in Coles County, Illinois.

Civilians Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik received the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal. Arland D. Williams Jr. 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 Coast Guard awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal to two crewmen of the U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1. As the U.S. Park Police is part of the United States Department of the Interior, pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. Windsor also received the Interior Department's Valor Award, presented in a special ceremony soon after the accident by Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt. Usher later became Superintendent of the National Park Service Law Enforcement Training Center located at FLETC in Brunswick, Georgia before retiring in December, 2012.

Roger Olian, Lenny 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 life vest she could find to a passenger.

Regulatory and procedure changes

The investigation following the crash, especially regarding the failure of the pilot to respond to crew concerns about the deicing procedure, led to a number of reforms in pilot training regulations. Partial blame was placed on the young, inexperienced flight crew, who had a combined age of only 65 and had begun their careers as commercial pilots less than five years earlier. Typical of upstart low-cost carriers, Air Florida frequently hired youthful pilots who worked for less money than veterans and were for the most part seeking to gain flight experience prior to joining a major airline. 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.

After the crash, airlines began enacting policies to ensure that at least one older, more seasoned crew member was on board planes at all times. In addition, they also began reappraising the traditional unwritten rule that the captain had ultimate authority on a flight and could not be questioned. From that point onward, first officers were encouraged to speak up if they believed a captain was making a mistake. Finally, as this was the first major accident involving a low-cost carrier, the FAA started paying more strict attention to low-cost airlines, many of which were engaging in risky operating practices to reduce costs.

Contribution to demise of Air Florida

Air Florida began lowering its service and reducing the number of its employees to cope with decreasing finances and fare wars. The airline ultimately filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two and a half years after the crash.

Some figures believe that the Air Florida crash was a significant factor in the company's failure, while some do not. Ken Kaye of the South Florida Sun Sentinel said "The Air Florida accident led to the carrier's eventual demise. Though it was once a robust airline, flying to 30 cities through Florida, the Northeast and the Caribbean, the company filed for bankruptcy and grounded its fleet in July 1984." Good Morning America also stated "The Air Florida accident led to the carrier's eventual demise".

Suzy Hagstrom of the Orlando Sentinel said "Chronologically, the crash of Flight 90 may have marked the beginning of the end for Air Florida, but aviation experts say it did not cause or trigger the carrier's demise". Paul Turk, the publications director of the aviation consultancy firm Avmark Inc., said that many airlines faced difficulties in the 1980s due to fare wars, a recession, and decline in travel and that Air Florida had already faced increasing debt and financial losses prior to the crash. Turk argued that "Air Florida would have folded without the crash". Thomas Canning, a senior airline analyst for Standard & Poor's, said "I don't believe one crash can make or break an airline. There were a lot of other factors involved in Air Florida's bankruptcy."


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