Monday, January 13, 2014

Air Florida Flight 90's Polar Plunge

Today is the 32nd Anniversary of Air Florida Flight 90 plunging into the Potomac River in Washington D.C., shortly after takeoff. Of the 79 passengers, only 5 survived. The aircraft first struck the 14th Street Bridge, crushing seven vehicles, killing four pedestrians, and destroying 97 feet of guard rail.

The cause of the accident was ruled to be Pilot and First Officer error. Pilot Captain Larry Wheaton was suspended in 1980 after he failed a company line check and not even a year before the fatal crash, he received further unsatisfactory grades on a company check. First officer Roger Pettit had a wonderful reputation, although like the pilot, had not flown in snow that often.

Washington National Airport was closed on the morning of January 13th, 1982 due to a heavy snowstorm only to reopen later that day. Flight 90 had been de-iced right before their afternoon takeoff but the aircraft had to wait on the runway for a considerable amount of time. Upon further snow accumulation, the pilot decided not to return to the gate for a reapplication of the de-ice liquid in order to prevent further delay. Mistake #1: The pilot let snow and ice accumulate on the wings. 

Mistake #2: Flight 90 maneuvered closely behind another aircraft that was taxiing just ahead of the aircraft prior to takeoff because they thought the warmth of the engines would melt the snow and ice that had accumulated on the wings. The clumps of slush it had produced did not fall off the plane's wings, but froze to them instead. Mistake #3: The crew did not activate the engine anti-ice system. This provided false readings. You can hear the captain's frustration with the plane in the cockpit recording.

On takeoff a survivor noted that he was fearful the plane would not get airborne and would "fall off the end of the runway." Flight 90 was airborne for only 30 seconds and after plunging into the Potomac, all but the tail section quickly became submerged.

Chester Panzer of WRC-TV captured a rescue of a woman from the water on film which later earned him the 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist honors for spot news photography. Survivor Arland D. Williams gave up rescue lines to other survivors before himself, and ultimately drowned. The 14th Street Bridge was renamed the "Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge" in his honor.

Air Florida filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy two and a half years after the crash.