Air Florida Flight 90

From Academic Kids

Missing image
U.S. National Transportation Safety Board diagram of flight path for Air Florida flight 90 which crashed on take-off at Washington, DC on January 13, 1982, killing 78 persons.

Air Florida Flight 90 was an Air Florida flight of a Boeing 737-222 which crashed in Washington, DC on January 13, 1982 immediately after take-off en route to Florida. There were 74 passengers, including 3 infants, and 5 crew members on board. All but 5 died. The aircraft struck 7 occupied vehicles on an Interstate highway bridge and tore away a railing, killing 4 more people before it plunged through the ice into the Potomac River. A total of 78 persons died in the worst accident in Washington DC history.


Record cold weather conditions

During the second week of January 1982, one of the worst periods of exceptionally cold weather in history had stricken the east coast of the United States. Atlanta, Georgia, recorded freezing temperatures, and the citrus crop in Florida was considered to be at risk. Around the nation's capital, for several days, freezing temperatures had brought vehicles to a standstill and interfered with daily activities.

On January 13, at Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington, DC, immediately across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the airport had opened at 12 noon under marginal conditions. The crew of Air Florida Flight 90 had left Miami at 11:00 AM EST, and arrived at about 1:45 PM EST.

That afternoon, they were to return south to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL), Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with an intermediate stop at Tampa International Airport (TPA), Tampa, Florida. The scheduled departure time was delayed about 1 hour 45 minutes due to a moderate to heavy snowfall, which necessitated the temporary closing of the airport.

Delays, poor decisions, crash

Missing image
Air Florida N62AF Boeing 737-222 photographed at Miami, Florida

The airplane was de-iced, by spraying the wings with an antifreeze-type chemical mixture, but the airplane had trouble leaving the gate when the ground services tow motor couldn't get traction on the ice. After finally leaving the departure gate, the Boeing 737-222 aircraft waited on a taxiway 49 minutes for clearance to use the congested airport's only instrument-rated runway, which requires a treacherous flight path north following the river, and winding between restricted airspace and obstacles such as the Washington Monument and the Pentagon.

Then, with snow and ice on the airfoil surfaces of the aircraft, the aircraft attempted to take off on the main (and only open) runway in heavy snow at 3:59 PM EST. Even though it was freezing and snowing, the crew did not activate the anti-ice systems. This caused engine thrust indicators to provide falsely high readings, and the takeoff was attempted at only 71% thrust. The aircraft traveled almost 1/2 mile (800 m) further down the runway than is customary before liftoff was accomplished. However, although the aircraft did manage to become airborne, it failed to gain altitude. At 4:01 PM EST it crashed into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River 0.75 nautical mile (1400 m) from the end of the runway. It hit six cars and a truck on the bridge. It then plunged into the freezing Potomac River. All but the tail section quickly became submerged.

As a result of injuries received during the crash, 4 of the 5 crew members and 69 of the 74 passengers perished, leaving only 6 survivors in the freezing water out of the 79 who had been aboard the aircraft. There were also four fatalities among the motorists on the bridge, with four others on the bridge injured.

Clinging to the tail section of the broken airliner with 5 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-injured passengers.

Hampered response, unlikely heroes

The blizzard conditions had happened fairly suddenly on this day, and many Federal Government offices in downtown Washington had just been closed early. Thus, there was a massive backup of traffic on almost all of the city's roads. The United States Coast Guard's Capstan (WYTL 65601) a 65-foot harbor tugboat and its crew based nearby whose duties include ice breaking and responding to such a water rescue were some considerable distance away 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.

One man, Roger Olian, a sheet-metal foreman at St Elizabeth's, 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. Other motorists and civilian bystanders made a makeshift rope of battery cables, scarves, and anything else they could find to keep Olian from drowning. He remained in the water for about twenty minutes until a United States Park Service Police helicopter arrived, whereupon he was reeled back to shore by the others, while the helicopter crew focused on the crash victims clinging to the tail section of the plane.

The only rescue helicopter arrives

News cameramen watched helplessly from the bridge, being only able to record the disaster for the rest of the world to see. Suddenly hope arrived in the form of a park police helicopter, trailing a lifeline reaching to the outstretched arms of the victims in the water below. At approximately 4:20 PM EST, Eagle 1, a United States Park Police helicopter based at the "Eagles Nest" at Anacostia Park in Washington DC and manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. (Gene) Windsor arrived and assisted at great risk to themselves, at one time getting so close to the ice-clogged river that the helicopter's skids went beneath the surface of the water. As the helicopter crew lowered a line to the survivors for towing them to shore, one survivor, later identified as Arland D. Williams Jr., was still attached to part of the plane. He repeatedly passed the line to others, After lifting and towing two badly injured passengers to shore one at a time, when the helicopter returned, an attempt was made to use 2 lines to haul 3 more, and two fell back into the icy water. By then one of these was too weak to grab the line. A watching bystander, a government 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 the other passengers 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 Arland D. Williams Jr., the last survivor, both he and the airplane's tail section had disappeared beneath the icy surface. His body and those of the other occupants were later recovered. According to the coroner, Williams who had passed the lifeline to others, was the only plane passenger to die by drowning.

Missing image
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 St 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.

A half hour after the plane crashed, the Washington Metro suffered its first fatal subway crash, which meant that the busiest airport, busiest highway and busiest subway line were all closed simultaneously, paralyzing the Washington DC area.

Responses in the media

As the community almost unanimously recoiled in shock from the multiple accidents and loss of life, Howard Stern, then with local radio station WWDC-FM (DC101), gained notoriety the next day when he called Air Florida, on-air, and asked what the fare was for a one-way ticket from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge. He was fired in June of the same year, although it was not publicly disclosed whether the termination was related to the Flight 90 incident.

News media outlets followed the story with diligence. Notably, the Washington Post newspaper published a story about the unidentified survivor of the impact 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,"
source: "A Hero - Passenger Aids Others, Then Dies", The Washington Post, January 14, 1982.

NTSB, aircraft, pilots

Salvage operations on January 19, 1982 of wreckage of Air Florida Flight 90 in the Potomac River
Salvage operations on January 19, 1982 of wreckage of Air Florida Flight 90 in the Potomac River

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was "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 pitchup 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."

The aircraft, N62AF, was first delivered to United Airlines in 1969 as N9050U Boeing serial #19556 and was the 130th aircraft off the 737 line.

Honoring heroism

The passenger who had survived the crash and had repeatedly given up the rescue lines to other survivors before drowning himself was later identified as a 46 year old bank examiner, Arland D. Williams Jr. The repaired 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River at the crash site, which had been officially 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 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. President Reagan also personally contacted and privately thanked Roger Olian.

The two crewmen of the U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1 were awarded the United States Coast Guard's Silver Lifesaving Medal. 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 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, Georgia.

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

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