Air Florida Flight 90 was an Air Florida flight of a Boeing 737-222 airliner that crashed into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. on January 13, 1982 immediately after takeoff in a severe snowstorm from Washington National Airport in Arlington County, Virginia.
The accident killed 78 people, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. A few survivors from the aircraft were rescued from the icy river by both civilians and professionals; these acts were commended during President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech a few days later. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of the accident was pilot error. The pilots failed to switch on the engines' internal anti-icing equipment, used reverse thrust in a snow storm prior to take-off, and failed to abort takeoff per FAA regulations even after detecting a power problem while taxiing, and visually identifying ice and snow buildup on the wings.
On January 13, Washington National Airport (located in Arlington County, Virginia, immediately across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.) had opened at noon under marginal conditions. That same day, the crew of Air Florida Flight 90 had left Miami International Airport at 11:00 a.m. EST and arrived at National Airport about 1:45 p.m. EST.
That afternoon the plane was 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 temporarily closed the airport.
The pilot apparently decided not to return to the gate for reapplication of de-icing, fearing the flight's departure would be even further delayed, and chose to continue waiting to take off. 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 p.m. EST. Even though it was freezing and snowing, the crew did not activate the anti-ice systems. Analysis (confirmed by the FBI) of the cockpit voice recorder determined that during the departure checklist, the copilot announced, and the pilot confirmed, that the plane's own anti-icing system was turned off. This system uses heat from the engines to prevent sensors from freezing and providing inaccurate readings.
During the plane's taxiing, the cockpit voice recorder 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 de-ice 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 the Air Florida 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 take off, instead of falling off the plane, this slush mixture then froze on the wings' leading edges and the engine inlet nose cone.
Neither the captain nor the first officer had much experience flying in snowy, cold weather. Additionally, the captain, Larry Wheaton, had failed a flight simulator test the previous year with one of his instructors citing Wheaton's unfamiliarity with flight rules and regulations. He took a repeat test soon after and passed.
As it turned out, the failure to operate the plane's anti-icing system caused exactly what could be expected to happen: the engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust indicators provided false high readings — when the pilots thought they had throttled up to the correct take-off EPR of 2.04, the actual EPR was only 1.70. The aircraft traveled almost ½ 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 plane began its takeoff roll the first officer noted several times to the captain that the readings he was seeing on the instrument panel did not seem to reflect reality (he was referring to the fact that the plane did not seem to have developed as much power as it needed for takeoff, despite the instruments indicating otherwise.) The captain dismissed the first officer's concerns and let the takeoff proceed. Investigators later 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 captain likely felt pressure to depart quickly because he knew another aircraft was on final approach using the same runway. Indeed, that aircraft landed just as the Air Florida plane took off and had Flight 90 aborted its takeoff the aircraft on final would have been instructed by air traffic controllers to execute a missed approach, delaying its arrival.
The following is a transcript of Flight 90's cockpit voice recorder during the plane's acceleration down the runway. It is evident that the first officer saw a problem with the instrumentation and that the captain shrugged off his concerns. (CAM-1 is the captain, CAM-2 is the first officer)
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:
Although the aircraft did manage to become airborne, it attained a maximum altitude of just 352 feet 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 (1400 m) from the end of the runway.
It hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, and tore away 97 feet of the bridge's rail and 41 feet of the bridge's wall. The wrecked aircraft then plunged into the freezing Potomac River. It fell between two of the three spans of the 14th Street Bridge, between the I-395 northbound span (the Rochambeau Memorial Bridge) and the HOV north and southbound spans, about 200 feet offshore. All but the tail section quickly became submerged.
Of the people on board the aircraft:
Of the motorists on the bridge involved:
Clinging to the tail section of the broken airliner with five 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 assisted fellow survivor Priscilla Tirado, and was trying to tow her to shore when the Park Police helicopter returned to try to pull them to safety.
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. 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 only aware that the plane had disappeared from radar and did not respond to radio calls, but had no idea what had happened or where the plane was.
At approximately 4:20 p.m. EST, Eagle 1, a United States Park Police Bell 206L-1 Long Ranger helicopter, N22PP, based at the "Eagles Nest" at Anacostia Park in Washington, D.C. and manned by pilot Donald W. Usher and paramedic Melvin E. (Gene) Windsor arrived and began attempting to assist the survivors to shore. At great risk to themselves, the crew worked close to the river 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 floating tail. The helicopter pilot moved him across the ice, while avoiding the sides of the bridge. Some fire rescue personnel had arrived but military personnel and civilians were key in pulling the survivors from the shore up to the 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 survivors in the water 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 Priscilla 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, the sixth passenger, 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 which 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 Washington, D.C. area.
News media outlets followed the story with diligence. Notably, The Washington Post published a story about the unidentified survivor of the impact (the "sixth passenger") 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.
One day after the crash, 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.
"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 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."
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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