Jan. 13, 1982 Snowstorm - Crash of Air Florida Flight 90

Feb 20, 2018
Raleigh, NC
On January 13, 1982, Washington National Airport (aka Reagan National Airport) in Washington, D.C, was closed due to a heavy snowstorm impacting the D.C. area that would produce 6.5 inches of snow. The airport reopened at noon under marginal conditions as snowfall slackened and the runways were plowed and sanded. That afternoon, Air Florida Flight 90 was scheduled for a return flight to Fort Lauderdale, FL with an intermediate stop at Tampa International.

Neither of the pilots on Air Florida had much experience flying in winter weather - the captain had only eight takeoffs/landings in snowy conditions and the first officer had only flown twice in winter weather conditions. Flight 90's departure time was delayed by about an hour and 45 minutes due to a backlog of arrivals and departures caused by the earlier airport closure. As the plane was readied for departure, a moderate snowfall continued and the air temperature was 24 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground crews had started de-icing the plane after its arrival earlier that afternoon, but the pilot called off the de-icing upon learning of the airport closure. It wasn't until the airport was reopened that the pilot requested the process be redone.

The plane had trouble leaving the gate following the de-icing when the ground-services tow motor could not get traction. For between 30-90 seconds, the crew attempted to back away using the reverse thrust of the engines, which not only proved futile, but was a poor choice - while it was not an unusual procedure, it was strongly recommended against in winter conditions. Eventually a tug ground unit properly equipped with ice chains was able to push the aircraft back from the gate. Flight 90 was 16th in line for takeoff, waiting in a taxi line with other aircraft for an additional 49 minutes before reaching the runway. The pilot chose not to return to the gate for additional de-icing prior to takeoff, fearing further delay to their departure. More snow and ice was allowed to accumulate on the wings, which the crew was aware of when they decided to take off. To complicate matters, the crew did not activate the engine's anti-ice system - which would have prevented key sensors from freezing, ensuring accurate readings - despite the winter weather conditions. As a result, the engine pressure ratio (EPR) thrust indicators provided false readings at the time of takeoff.

Adding to the growing list of problems was the pilot's decision to maneuver closely behind a DC-9 taxiing ahead of them out a mistaken belief that the heat from the DC-9's engines would melt off the snow and ice that had accumulated on Flight 90's wings. This actually contributed to additional icing on the wings' leading edges and the engine inlet nose cone. As the takeoff roll began, the first officer noted several times that the instrument panel readings did not seem to reflect what was actually taking place. The captain dismissed these concerns and let the takeoff proceed. Takeoff normally takes 30 seconds for the plane to get airborne. Flight 90 took roughly 45 seconds to get airborne, traveling an additional half mile down the runway than normal to accomplish liftoff. Survivors indicated afterward that the trip over the runway was extremely rough, with one believing they "would never get airborne and fall off the end of the runway". Although the plane did become airborne, it only reached a max altitude of 352 feet before going into a swept-wing stall and crashing into the 14th Street Street Bridge across the Potomac River, roughly 3/4 of a mile from the runway. The plane struck six cars and a truck on the bridge with its landing gear, before plunging into the frozen river. All but the tail section of the plane was submerged in the crash. Of the 79 people on board, only 5 survived (one flight stewardess and four passengers). Nineteen occupants were thought to have survived the impact, but their injuries prevented them from escaping.

Two civilians came to the aid of the survivors of the Flight 90 Crash: Roger Olian, a sheet-metal foreman at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, and Lenny Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office assistant. Olian jumped into the Potomac River and remained in the water for roughly 20 minutes, attempting to help the survivors, until the arrival of the U.S. Park Police. Lenny Skutnik came to the aid of one of the survivors, Priscilla Torado, when she lost her grip on the rescue line as she being pulled to the shore. Skutnik dove into the water after her and helped her get to shore to where a firefighter helped carry her to the ambulance. Both Skutnik and Olian were awarded the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal, and Skutnik was recognized at President Reagan's Current State of the Union Address following the accident. The Coast Guard also awarded a Silver Lifesaving Medal to the crew of the U.S Park Police that airlifted the survivors of the crash to safety - pilot Donald Usher and paramedic Melvin Windsor - who also received the Interior Department's Valor award. One of the initial survivors, Arland Williams, repeatedly passed on the rescue line to others, as he "couldn't move and couldn't get out on his own", and ultimately drowned. He was posthumously awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal for his actions.

Ultimately the NTSB determined that contributing factors to the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 "were the prolonged 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".