Air Florida Flight 90

Air Florida Flight 90
Air Florida Flight 90

Salvage operations on January 19, 1982
Accident summary
Date January 13, 1982
Type Icing and pilot error
Site Washington, D.C. and Arlington County, Virginia
Passengers 74
Crew 5
Injuries 10 (including 5 on ground)
Fatalities 78 (including 4 on ground)
Survivors 5
Aircraft type Boeing 737-222
Operator Air Florida
Tail number N62AF
Flight origin Washington National Airport
Last stopover Tampa International Airport[1]
Destination Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport[1][2]
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board diagram of flight path for Air Florida Flight 90 which crashed on takeoff at Washington, D.C., on January 13, 1982, killing 78 persons.

Air Florida Flight 90 was a scheduled U.S. domestic passenger flight from Washington National Airport in Arlington County, Virginia, to Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a stopover at Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Florida. On January 13, 1982, the Boeing 737-200 flying Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, killing all but four passengers and one flight attendant.

The aircraft was carrying 74 passengers and five crewmembers when it crashed during the failed takeoff attempt. 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[3] 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 accident killed 78 people, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. 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.


Cockpit crew

The pilots of Air Florida Flight 90 were Captain Larry Wheaton, Pilot in Command (PIC), and First Officer Roger Pettit, Second in Command (SIC).[4] Summaries of each pilot were included in the NTSB official Aircraft Accident Report. Despite the conclusion that both pilots were properly trained and certified in accordance with current regulations ,[5] details of each were included by investigators.

Captain Larry Wheaton, 34, was hired by Air Florida in October 1978 as a first officer. He quickly upgraded to captain less than 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). Wheaton logged 1,752 hours on the Boeing 737, the accident aircraft type, with 1,100 of those hours as captain.[5]

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, Wheaton 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.[5] 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 Wheaton satisfactorily passed a proficiency recheck.[5]

First Officer Roger Pettit, 31, was employed 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, Pettit was 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.[5]

Pettit 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.[5]

Alternating the role of “primary pilot” between the PIC and SIC 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. Co-pilot Roger Pettit was at the controls as the PF 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 (MIA) 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 (FLL) 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 (DCA). As the plane was readied for departure, a moderate snowfall continued and the air temperature was 24 °F (−4 °C).[3]

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.[6]

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.[7] Boeing operations bulletins had warned against using reverse thrust in those kinds of conditions.[7]

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 was aware of that fact when they decided to make the takeoff.[7] 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.[8] This system uses heat from the engines to prevent sensors from freezing, ensuring accurate readings.[7]

During the plane's taxiing, the CVR picked up the following conversation between the captain and first officer, in which they discussed the icing situation:

First Officer: "It's a losing battle trying to deice these things. It gives you a false feeling of security, that's all it does."

Captain: "Well, it satisfies the Feds [government regulators]."

Adding to the plane's troubles was the pilots' decision to maneuver closely behind a DC-9 that was taxiing just ahead of their 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 takeoff, instead of falling off the plane, this slush mixture then froze on the wings' leading edges and the engine inlet nose cone.[3]

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 copilot had flown in snow only twice.[9]

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. 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".

As the takeoff roll began, First Officer Pettit noted several times to Captain Wheaton that the instrument panel readings he was seeing did not seem to reflect reality (he was referring to the fact that the plane did not appear to have developed as much power as it needed for takeoff, despite the instruments indicating otherwise). The captain dismissed these concerns and let the takeoff proceed. Investigators later determined that there was plenty of time and space on the runway for Wheaton 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 2.5 miles out (4 km) on final approach to the same runway.[3]

External audio
Cockpit Voice Recorder audio recording from

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

15:59:32 CAM-1 Okay, your throttles.


15:59:49 CAM-1 Holler if you need the wipers.

15:59:51 CAM-1 It's spooled. Real cold, real cold.

15:59:58 CAM-2 God, look at that thing. That don't seem right, does it? Uh, that's not right.

16:00:09 CAM-1 Yes it is, there's eighty.

16:00:10 CAM-2 Naw, I don't think that's right. Ah, maybe it is.

16:00:21 CAM-1 Hundred and twenty.

16:00:23 CAM-2 I don't know.

16:00:31 CAM-1 Vee-one. Easy, vee-two.

—Transcript, Air Florida Flight 90 Cockpit Voice Recorder

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:


16:00:41 TWR Palm 90 contact departure control.

16:00:45 CAM-1 Forward, forward, easy. We only want five hundred.

16:00:48 CAM-1 Come on forward....forward, just barely climb.

16:00:59 CAM-1 Stalling, we're falling!

16:01:00 CAM-2 This is it. We're going down, Larry....

16:01:01 CAM-1 I know it!

16:01:01 [SOUND OF IMPACT]

—Transcript, Air Florida Flight 90 Cockpit Voice Recorder

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.[3] The wrecked 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:[3]

  • Four of the five crew members (including both pilots) died
  • One crew member was seriously injured
  • 70 of the 74 passengers died.[3]

Of the motorists on the bridge involved:[3]

  • 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 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 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 area news reporters.

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

Roger Olian, a sheetmetal foreman at St. Elizabeths, 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 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 plane's floating tail. The pilot moved him across the ice while avoiding the sides of the bridge. By then some fire/rescue personnel had arrived, but military personnel and civilians were key in pulling the survivors from the shore 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. 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 remaining survivors 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 Tirado and Patricia Felch lost their grip and fell back into the water.

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 Metro suffered its first fatal subway crash. 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.

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 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.[10]

One day after the accident, 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.[11]

NTSB conclusion

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash 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 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 Service 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 is now Superintendent of the National Park Service law enforcement training center in Brunswick, Georgia.

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 another passenger.[3]

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. It became a widely used case study for both air crews and rescue workers.[12] Another result of the accident was the development of an improved rescue harness for use in helicopter recoveries.[citation needed]

See also

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  1. ^ a b "Afterward," The New York Times
  2. ^ "January 13 This Day in History," The History Channel
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "AAR82-08" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. 1982-08-10. Retrieved 2009-07-11. 
  4. ^ "We're Going Down, Larry". Time 119 (007): 21. 1982-02-15.,9171,925270,00.html. Retrieved 2010-11-24. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Air Florida, Inc., Boeing 737-222, N62AF, Collision with 14th Street Bridge near Washington National Airport" (PDF), National Transportation Safety Board, Washington, D.C., 1982-01-13, pp. 10, 11, 90,, retrieved 2010-11-24 
  6. ^ Air Florida Flight 90 Accident Report: National Transportation Safety Board (pp. 57, 58)
  7. ^ a b c d [Air Florida Flight 90 Accident Report: National Transportation Safety Board (pg. 59)
  8. ^ Nova. Why Planes Crash. 1987. WGBH Boston.
  9. ^ Kay, Ken (2009-01-10). "Air Florida disaster still chilling 27 years later". Sun Sentinal. Retrieved 2010-11-24. 
  10. ^ "A Hero - Passenger Aids Others, Then Dies." The Washington Post. January 14, 1982.
  11. ^ Stern, Howard, The History of Howard Stern, "Mr. Stern Goes to Washington", Sirius Satellite Radio, December 2007.
  12. ^ Wilber, Del Quentin (2007-01-12). "A Crash's Improbable Impact: '82 Air Florida Tragedy Led To Broad Safety Reforms". The Washington Post. pp. A01. Retrieved 2008-04-21. 

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 38°52′26″N 77°02′34″W / 38.87389°N 77.04278°W / 38.87389; -77.04278

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