What Made Air Florida Flight 90 Crash into DC’s Potomac River in 1982?
On January 13, 1982, Air Florida 90 crashed into the traffic-jammed 14th Street Bridge in Washington, DC, killing people on the bridge before crashing into the frigid Potomac River, and almost killing everyone onboard. In this inaugural episode of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the heroic rescue of several survivors and an investigation that reaches a troubling conclusion about the cause of the crash: senseless pilot error.
Air Florida Flight 90 Takes Off from National Airport on a Snowy Day
Our setting is National Airport, Washington, DC, January 13th, 1982. The city is currently experiencing one of the worst winters in decades. A snowstorm has produced 6.5 inches of snow that isn’t going anywhere because the temps are around 24 degrees.
National Airport has been temporarily closed due to the snowstorm, but it reopens around 12 noon when the snowfall begins to taper off.
Once the airport reopens, Air Florida Flight 90, a Boeing 737, arrives from Miami to National Airport at 1:45 PM at Gate 12. It is scheduled to leave Washington National at 2:15 for Fort Lauderdale with an intermediate stop at Tampa, FL.
Onboard, we have Captain Larry Wheaton, 34, who was hired by Air Florida in 1978 and has about 1700 hours on the 737. We also have first officer Roger Petit, 31, who is a former Navy fighter pilot and was hire by Air Florida in 1980. He has over 3000 hours of commercial jet experience on the 737.
Also onboard is flight attendant Kelly Duncan, aged 22. She loves her job and is very proud of being a flight attendant. She is, by her own account, a party girl. For example, the weekend before the accident, she and some friends drank their way down through the Florida Keys. She’s living life and enjoying being young and well-travelled. Kelly is joined by two other flight attendants, Marilyn Nichols (aged 25) and Donna Adams, aged 23.
At 1:48 PM, with snow falling outside once more, airport maintenance crews start clearing the runways again. Because that is an hour-long process, all the flights that are scheduled to leave within the hour or right after 2 PM, including Flight 90, are all grounded for another hour. The airport closes from 1:48 to 2:53 PM.
In the meantime, between 2 and 2:30, while the airport is closed, Flight 90 starts to board. On Flight 90, we have 79 passengers total: 71 adult passengers, 3 infants, and 5 crew.
We have Joe Stiley and Nikki Felch – they work together, and both are on a business trip to Tampa, Florida. Joe happens to be a licensed pilot. His co-worker Nikki is excited to escape the cold weather of DC and head some place warm where she can get in a swim.
Priscilla Tirado is also onboard as a passenger, along with her 2-month-old son and her husband Jose. They are relocating to Florida for Jose’s new job in construction.
One of the last passengers to board the plane is Bert Hamilton, who is travelling with a group of seven colleagues. Bert is busy parking his car, which delays him, and by the time he boards the plane, he takes one of the few seats left: 21 D. As the plane waits to be cleared for takeoff, Bert’s boss comes back and asks if he wants to join them. Bert says no and thanks him. This proves to be a life-changing decision.
Flight attendant Kelly Duncan is seated at the back of the plane. Joe and Nikki are a few rows up from Kelly as well as Priscilla Tirado and her husband and child. And Bert, as we said, is in the far back. All of them are within or near the tail section of the plane.
Even though Flight 90 is boarding, they can’t yet takeoff. While they sit in the queue, passenger Joe Stiley said he could see “snow accumulating on the aircraft as well as all around the aircraft.”
While they wait, at around 2:20 PM, Captain Wheaton orders the ground crew to de-ice the plane. Remember, the plane has been sitting at the gate for a while during the clean-up of the runways by the airport maintenance crew. But when Captain Wheaton learns Flight 90 is far back in the take-off queue, he cancels the de-icing mid-process, meaning, only the left side of the fuselage was de-iced.
The airport is about to be reopened. Between 2:45 and 2:50, the Captain asks for the de-icing process to resume. The process was completed at around 3:10.
At 3:15, the aircraft is closed-up and given clearance to taxi. But when they start to taxi from the gate, the plane gets stuck because the tow motor cannot get traction on the ice, which means the plane is unable to back out. First Officer Petit remarks, “We’re too heavy for the ice.”
Captain Wheaton wants to help the crew by using the plane’s engine reverse thrust to blow hot air onto the runway to melt the ice and snow so they could push the aircraft back. But the maintenance operator advises Captain Wheaton this is contrary to the policy of the Airlines. Nonetheless, according to the tug operator, the aircraft’s engines are started and both reversers are deployed. The operator then advises the flight crew to use only “idle power.” They finally bring in a second tow motor to help move the plane, which is successful.
At 3:38, Flight 90 is ready to taxi from the gate. At this point, flight attendants go through the safety procedures and features with the passengers. The pilots go through their take off checklist.
But, almost immediately, things aren’t going smoothly. The pilots can see ice on the wings and First Officer Petit seems concerned. There is some discussion between the Captain and First Officer about de-icing the windshield and maybe parts of the wings. But whatever amount of ice or snow they see remaining on the wings does not deter them from proceeding with the takeoff.
At 3:58, they are cleared for take-off and start down the runway. In all, by the time they take off, Flight 90 has been delayed for 1 hour and 45 minutes.
As the takeoff roll begins, First Officer Petit notes several times to the captain that the plane does not appear to have as much power as it needs for takeoff, despite what the instruments are telling them. The captain really seems to dismiss the concerns, or at a minimum, disagree with what First Officer Petit is seeing.
And by then, the Captains calls out vee-one.
Meanwhile, in the cabin, Joe Stiley, who is both a passenger on Flight 90 and a licensed pilot, can tell during the take-off that the plane is not getting the speed needed to lift off for a 737. He described the trip down the runway like “riding on a back-country road full of potholes.”
Air Florida Flight 90 Crashes into 14th Street Bridge, Potomac River
Suddenly, the nose pitches up sharply and the plane begins to shake. This is because when the nose pitches up, it creates so much drag that the plane begins to lose speed. In the cockpit, the stick shaker and stall warnings sound over and over.
At this point in the cabin, passengers are starting to realize things are going wrong. Joe Stiley, who is a pilot himself, fears the plane won’t make the take off, and he is so certain in his belief that when the plane becomes airborne, Joe tells his co-worker Nikki to assume the brace position, with some nearby passengers doing the same thing.
And Joe Stiley is right: the aircraft is not accelerating fast enough. Flight 90 requires 2,000 more feet more than normal to takeoff. Although the 737 does manage to become airborne, it only reaches a maximum altitude of just 352 feet before it begins losing altitude.
Captain Wheaton orders First Officer Petit to drop the nose. Then the plane stops climbing, and it begins to fall. Captain Wheaton jams the throttle forward for max thrust, but it’s too late.
As this was a miserable day for air travel, road travel is equally bad. All major highways in and around DC are congested and at a standstill. That includes the 14th Street Bridge where there is a major traffic jam. Cars and trucks filled with people cover the bridge’s surface.
And this is where Flight 90 is heading.
Commuters on the bridge recall hearing the screeching sounds of jet engines coming toward them. One witness account in the NTSB report goes like this: “I heard screaming jet engines. The nose was up and the tail was down. It was like the pilot was still trying to climb but the plane was sinking fast. I saw the tail of the plane tear across the top of the cars, smashing some tops and ripping off others. The plane seemed to hit the water intact in a combination sinking/plowing action. I saw the cockpit go under the ice.”
When the aircraft strikes the bridge, its wing strikes six occupied automobiles and a boom truck before tearing away a 41-foot section of the bridge wall and 97 feet of the bridge railings. Witnesses see one person whose head is severed from their neck and another man gets crushed to death beneath wreckage.
The final words in the cockpit as the plane hits the water are – and this is heartbreaking –
First Officer Petit: Larry, we're going down, Larry....
Captain Wheaton: I know it.
At 4:01 PM, Flight 90 crashes into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River, just 0.75 nautical miles from the end of the runway. The plane was airborne for just 30 seconds.
When it hits the river, the fuselage breaks into four sections with the tail section quickly becoming submerged. On the cockpit voice recorder, the moment of impact is audible, and it’s all the nightmarish one would imagine – an enormous crashing sound, breaking glass, and an overwhelming loud noise of water rushing in or rushing around the cockpit.
Survivors Fight to Live After Air Florida Flight 90 Crashes into the Potomac
Miraculously, there are a few survivors. There are 6 total survivors who make it to the surface including passengers Joe Stiley and Nikki Felch; flight attendant Kelly Duncan; passenger Priscilla Tirado, whose baby son and husband were also onboard; and passenger Bert Hamilton from seat 21D.
Joe Stiley says he remembers the sensation of blacking out and thinking that he was going to die. But then he regains consciousness. But his survival instincts kick in. The water is up to his nose. He manages to get his legs loose. He helps to also free Nicki. He sees a glimmer of light coming from the water above and swims toward it, and he knows if he can reach it, he might be safe. He remembers just swimming and swimming and swimming until he reaches the surface. Little does he know it, but he is seriously injured with bones broken in 67 places.
As the plane is crashing, passenger Bert Hamilton recalls that he grabbed ahold of something and just hung on. He starts to lose his left shoe and he remembers that losing his shoe seemed to be a big problem at the time. He said, “Strange thing--I could feel it coming off and that was the most important thing in the world. I was thinking my foot would be cold."
Flight attendant Kelly Duncan says she has no memory of the impact itself. One minute she is in her warm seat and the next she is floating on frigid cold water in a river.
As this is January with freezing temperatures, and they have just crashed into water, which is only about 1 degree above freezing. Apparently, humans can only survive in that temperature for up to 30 minutes. Obviously, the surviving passengers are in emergent need of rescue. Kelly Duncan said the frigid waters felt like knives all in her body.
The survivors are clinging to the remaining pieces of floating wreckage from the tail or from ice that’s floating around. There is also another passenger who is clinging to the wreckage, but his face is not visible. On the news historic footage, a single hand can be seen waving feebly to the rescuers.
The Heroic Rescue of Air Florida 90 Survivors on the Potomac
The Coast Guard arrives quickly, but their inflatable boats can’t make it through the ice. At 4:06, the US Park Police get the call about the crash – this is just about 5 minutes after the plane has gone into the water. They fly a Long Ranger helicopter called Eagle 1 manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Gene Windsor.
These men are going into dangerous conditions. Because of the weather, there is extremely low visibility. But they are like F-it, we are going, these people need our help.
The crash has caused a great commotion on the bridge and surrounding roads because it’s near rush hour, traffic was terrible anyhow, and people are pulling over and just staring in disbelief at what they have just seen happen on the 14th Street Bridge.
Lenny Skutnick, who at the time is a 28-year-old Congressional Budget Office employee, is one of thousands of government employees sent home because of the snowstorm. As he is driving along, he sees there is a major commotion happening, and pulls over to the side of the embankment with other on-lookers. He looks at the water and sees the survivors clinging to the wreckage. He can hear them screaming from the water and it makes the hair stand up on the back of his head.
Another passerby, Roger Olian, is a sheet-metal foreman, and is on his way home across the 14th Street bridge when he hears a man yelling that there was a plane in the water. Olian thinks he is crazy but runs down the embankment to look. And there he indeed sees the tail of a full-sized jet; the rest is gone. In the water are a handful of survivors screaming for help. He said, “I was overwhelmed with the fact there was nothing you could do. Nothing to use. No trees for branches. The only option was to stand on the bank and hope something happened - or hop in.” Which is what he does. People on the embankment make a makeshift rope, using jumper cables and scarves, and throw it to Roger to tie around his waist. He makes his way through the water and over ice for 20 minutes, yelling words of encouragement.
By now the survivors are in the water for 21 minutes. They cannot move their hands. Then, they hear it: the sound of Eagle 1, the US Park Police rescue helicopter. Joe Stiley said he felt unimaginable relief when he saw that helicopter. Once the helicopter appears, the people on the bank pull Roger Olian back to shore.
The rescuers throw down a rope for the survivors to tie around their waists so they could be airlifted out. The first survivor rescued is Burt Hamilton. Next, is flight attendant Kelly Duncan.
Then, they throw down 2 ropes. Joe takes one rope and wraps his arm around Priscilla, and Nicki Felch takes the other rope. But Nicki is so injured she can’t hold on. And, Joe’s hand is so badly broken he loses grip of Priscilla. Joe is dragged to safety. Nicki, though she has lost grip on the rope, has on a life vest. So, to the rescuers, Priscilla is the priority. She has now begun to drift out onto the water and is floating on a piece of ice, her arms flailing around her. She keeps losing her grip on the line they keep trying to throw to her. It’s no use. She starts to drown.
Passerby Lenny Skutnik, who has been watching from the shore, sees Priscilla in the water. He remembers later that her eyes looked wild like an animal’s and that he could physically see her body going into shock. What we know now is that her eyes were blinded by jet fuel that had been scattered by the wind from the helicopter blades. Priscilla’s terrified and shocked face is now infamously captured in the local TV footage.
Seeing Priscilla, Lenny decides he can take no more. He is close enough to see her face and knows that she is almost gone. He cannot stand the thought of this woman dying in front of him. He flings off his coat and boots and plunges into the icy water. He swims to her and is able to grab her and push her to the riverbank where others rush her to an ambulance. Of the rescue, he said, “I believe it’s a human instinct. I didn’t weigh it; I didn’t think about it.”
Nicki Felch is still in the water, and to get her out, paramedic Gene Windsor basically steps out onto the skid of the helicopter and scoops her up himself. This was a very dangerous and heroic act.
The 6th and final person who is only visible by a single hand is no longer there. He’s drowned. The other survivors remember that he passed the rope to them several times when it came to him first. He is later identified as 46-year-old Arland Williams.
When it is all said and done, 74 passengers and crew are dead, including Priscilla Tirado’s little baby and husband. Of the motorists on the bridge, 4 sustain fatal injuries, 1 sustained serious injury, and 3 sustain minor injuries.
The victims on the bridge who died were Mariella Spriggs, 26, of northeast Washington; Joe Pringle, 18, of southeast Washington; Air Force Lt. Michael Saunders, 33, of Oxon Hill, Md.; and Ray Bowles, 46, of Cockeysville, Md.
NTSB Investigates Ice and Weather as Possible Causes of 14th Street Bridge Plane Crash
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launches an investigation. They first wonder about the weather, obviously, but other planes took off that day without issue, so that leads them to think there must be unique factors that caused this crash.
They start to examine the de-icing procedures that would have been used on Flight 90. Despite there having been marginal de-icing on the plane a diluted de-icing mixture was used, it still should have done enough of a job not to interfere with takeoff. De-icing is ruled out as the key contributor of the crash.
Next, investigators discover something that gives them great concern. The Captain used the engine reverse thrust to try and help the plane get unstuck in the snow. This is an action that never should have been done, especially in wintry conditions. Doing so makes the hot air that shoots out from the engines also shoots out snow and ice that reverses back on to the plane and even into the engine. And then the snow and ice re-freezes within minutes. Investigators determine this is an act that demonstrates extremely poor pilot judgement. The NTSB asks Boeing to carry out some tests. They confirm that ice in the engines can cause faulty instrument readings. Which the crew experienced during takeoff.
When the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) is finally found, investigators discover that before takeoff, both pilots see snow on the wings but don’t turn back for more de-icing, which apparently is a regulatory requirement. Investigators also hear First Officer Petit voice concerns over instrument readings and takeoff speed. The NTSB wonders, why didn’t the captain abort the take off before it was too late?
Once they rule out mechanical issues and weather as the key contributors, the NTSB starts to take a closer look at the pilots. When examining the records of each crew member, neither had much experience flying in winter conditions. And two separate times, once in 1980 and once in 1981, Captain Wheaton had failed a Boeing 737 company line check and was found to be unsatisfactory in key areas.
On the first proficiency check, Captain Wheaton was found to be deficient in adherence to regulations, checklist usage, flight procedures such as departures and cruise control and approaches and landings. And on the second proficiency check, he was found to be deficient in memory items, knowledge of aircraft systems and aircraft limitations. In both cases, he satisfactorily passes a proficiency recheck.
When investigators examine the use of the engine anti-ice system, they discover the flight crew’s attention is directed to engine anti-ice during the after-start checklist, but this item does not appear on the taxi and takeoff checklist. The NTSB found that when a plane experiences a lengthy ground delay and there are changes in weather conditions that affect the plane between the time of the after-start checklist and the initiation of takeoff that THIS would lead them to reassess if they need to use engine anti-ice.
Meaning, the anti-ice system might be turned off during an earlier checklist but once take off is initiated, it might make sense to reassess and see if the anti-ice needed to be turned on BUT there is nothing in those checklists that would prompt a pilot to do so.
The NTSB could only speculate whether a taxi and takeoff checklist entry for engine anti-ice would have prompted the flight crew to turn it on for takeoff. This is one of the most significant findings of the investigation. Had the crew turned it on at that time, the accident would probably have been averted. Additionally, the NTSB considered it an expectation that an experienced professional flight crew preparing for takeoff in conditions as they existed on the date of this accident would routinely have checked all items related to safe operations in subfreezing weather, such as pitot heat and engine anti-ice, regardless of whether such items appeared on a checklist.
Despite the icing condition with weather temperature of about 24 °F, the crew failed to activate the engine anti-ice systems, which caused the Engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust indicators to provide false readings.
NTSB Issues Probable Cause of the 14th Street Bridge Plane Crash: Pilot Error
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash was pilot error, specifically, 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.
Safety Changes Made After Air Florida Flight 90 Plane Crash into DC River
The investigation following the crash led to several 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. After the crash, airlines began enacting policies to ensure that at least one more seasoned crew member was always on-board planes.
Another outcome of the investigation was the development of an improved rescue harness for use in helicopter recoveries. Finally, as this was the first major accident involving a low-cost carrier, the FAA started paying more attention to low-cost carriers to ensure they were not engaging in cost savings measures that sacrificed operational competency.
Honors Bestowed Upon the Heroes of Air Florida Flight 90
Civilians Roger Olian and Lenny Skutnik, who both entered the water to help survivors, received the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal and the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal.
The Coast Guard awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal to two crewmen of the U.S. Park Police helicopter Eagle 1.
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.
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.
And that is the story of Air Florida Flight 90, or the 14th Street Bridge Plane Crash.