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Wed Jan 13, 2021, 07:53 AM

39 Years Ago Today; Air Florida Flight 90 plunges into Potomac River after takeoff

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Florida_Flight_90



Air Florida Flight 90 was a scheduled U.S. domestic passenger flight operated by Air Florida from Washington National Airport to Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport with an intermediate stopover at Tampa International Airport. On January 13, 1982, the Boeing 737-222 registered as N62AF crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River just two miles from the White House.



The aircraft struck the 14th Street Bridge, which carries Interstate 395 between Washington, D.C. and Arlington County, Virginia. It struck 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 aircraft was carrying 74 passengers and five crewmembers. Four passengers and one flight attendant were rescued from the crash and survived. Another passenger, Arland D. Williams, Jr., assisted in the rescue of the survivors but drowned before he himself could be rescued. Four motorists on 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, tried to use the jet exhaust of a plane in front of them to melt their ice, and failed to abort the takeoff even after detecting a power problem while taxiing and seeing ice and snow buildup on the wings.



As the takeoff roll began, the first officer noted several times to the captain 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, then he let the takeoff proceed.

Investigators 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 2.5 miles out (4 km) on final approach to the same runway. The following is a transcript of Flight 90's cockpit voice recorder during the plane's acceleration down the runway.

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

15:59:35 [SOUND OF ENGINE SPOOLUP]

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

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

15:59:58 CAM-2 God, look at that thing. That don't seem right, does it? Ah, 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 V1. Easy, V2.

— Transcript, Air Florida Flight 90 Cockpit Voice Recorder


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

16:00:39 [SOUND OF STICKSHAKER STARTS AND CONTINUES UNTIL IMPACT]

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 Larry, we're going down, Larry....

16:01:01 CAM-1 I know!

16:01:01 [SOUND OF IMPACT]

— Transcript, Air Florida Flight 90 Cockpit Voice Recorder


The aircraft traveled almost half a mile (800 m) farther down the runway than is customary before liftoff was accomplished. Survivors of the crash indicated the trip over the runway was extremely rough, with survivor Joe Stiley – a businessman and private pilot – saying that he believed that they would not get airborne and would "fall off the end of the runway". When the plane became airborne, Stiley told his co-worker (and survivor) Nikki Felch to assume the crash position, with some nearby passengers following their example.

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 crew members (including both pilots) died.
One crew member was seriously injured.
70 of the 74 passengers died.
19 occupants were believed to have survived 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 in the ice-choked Potomac River were flight attendant Kelly Duncan and four passengers: Patricia "Nikki" Felch, Joe Stiley, Arland D. Williams Jr. (strapped and tangled in his seat) and Priscilla Tirado. Duncan inflated the only flotation device they could find and passed it to the severely injured Felch. Passenger Bert Hamilton, who was floating in the water nearby, was the first to be pulled from the water.

Crash response

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 ice breaking 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 dispatched at 4:07 pm took 20 minutes to reach the scene of the crash. 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.



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Reply 39 Years Ago Today; Air Florida Flight 90 plunges into Potomac River after takeoff (Original post)
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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Jan 13, 2021, 08:25 AM

1. I vividly remember that event

And even more so when flying out of Minneapolis the following December in a snow storm as the ground crew de-iced the wings at least twice before we finally took off. Believe we were one of the last planes out of the airport that evening. That was one of the few times I was really nervous about take off. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

There were heroes that day in DC. Ordinary people doing extra ordinary things.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Jan 13, 2021, 08:33 AM

2. I remember this well. Our wedding was scheduled for January 23rd, a mere...

...10 days later. My favorite aunt, never a huge fan of travel by any mode, was planning to come out to Denver for the event. She cancelled her plans because of this crash.

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