Air Florida Flight 90
January 13, 2005 1:02 PM   Subscribe

"Larry, we're going down, Larry," "I know it." This day twenty-two years ago, Air Florida Flight 90 took off from DC National Airport, in heavy snow, with insufficiently de-iced wings. A minute after takeoff, the plane crashed into the packed 14th Street Bridge, crushing several cars before falling into the Potomac River and sinking into the icy water. [More inside.]
posted by brownpau (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by brownpau at 1:03 PM on January 13, 2005

(Darn. I was trying to get this in at 4:01 pm EST, the exact time of the crash, but I was off by a minute. And just so you know: today, DC is a sunny and balmy 70°F, with not a snowflake in sight. Weird.)
posted by brownpau at 1:06 PM on January 13, 2005

Also twenty-two years ago. I still remember watching the news broadcasts of this when I got home from school.
posted by Tenuki at 1:09 PM on January 13, 2005

You're incorrigible: 23.
posted by cardboard at 1:15 PM on January 13, 2005

Shouldn't that be 23 years ago?
posted by cameldrv at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2005 too. I specifically remember there were several people lauded as heroes that day for jumping into the freezing river to try to save some people.
posted by spicynuts at 1:24 PM on January 13, 2005

Didn't something similar happen in Chicago in the early nineties? I seem to remember something about a plane crashing because the wait between deicing and take off was too long. Anyone know?
posted by fossil_human at 1:26 PM on January 13, 2005

My god, what a terrible way to die. I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like for the people in the fuselage.

There was also the horror of rescue attempts that failed. "I saw a man caught under the ice trying frantically to get out, but by the time the ice was broken, he was already dead," said Maj. Harold Anderson, an official with the Salvation Army whose volunteers helped with the rescue effort.

posted by Specklet at 1:26 PM on January 13, 2005

I know someone who worked with Lenny Skutnik, the heroic passer-by mentioned in the Washington Post article. He apparently came into the office the next day and didn't say a word about the event to anyone, and never liked to talk about it even after he was identified. Just a quiet little copy-room guy who happened to do something great.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:32 PM on January 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

The next day, Howard Stern (then a local DJ) "called Air Florida, on-air, and asked what the fare was for a one-way ticket from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge."

Ronald Reagan started a trend by saluting Lenny Skutnik at the State of the Union address two weeks later. (Lenny Skutnik went to my high school, before I went there.)
posted by kirkaracha at 1:37 PM on January 13, 2005

some parents in my neighborhood didn't make it home (mostly from the pentagon) that night because of the traffic and pretty much everyone's dad was late getting home. hardly the same as never getting home at all, but it was very surreal.

it was one of those inevitable bonding conversations i had with people in washmetro during law school: remember when the plane hit the 14th street bridge?

fossil_human: you can search NTSB crash reports (there's five pages of reports concerning incidents and accidents in chicago between 90 & 95. i don't personally recall anything like that, but i hadn't moved back to chicago until 93 or 94, but "de-icing" as a search criteria didn't bring anything up)
posted by crush-onastick at 1:37 PM on January 13, 2005

That site is terribly interesting and instructive about what causes and contributes to air disasters, and the psychology of people in extreme peril. I spent a long time a couple of years ago reading every transcript and listening to every voice recorder. Since then I've questioned my own motives for doing so: is it morbid voyeurism? I can't deny that there certainly must be a component of that. Still, I've long had a strong and deep intellectual interest in how people react under extreme stress, particularly with regards to problem-solving.

Nova had an episode in the eighties titled "Why Planes Crash" which I vividly recall and recommend highly. I also bought and read "Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation Safety in a Changing World", which is very highly regarded.

The conclusion of almost all research and experts is that most airplane crashes are the result of human error, most often pilot error. But the type of error is very interesting. The Nova program and many sources use the 1972 Eastern Flight 401 crash in the Florida Everglades as emblematic of what goes wrong, how, and why. A failed indicator light for the landing gear put the plane into a holding pattern while the crew attempted to determine if the landing gear had actually failed to deploy or, much more likely and what they suspected, the lamp was merely broken. They fooled around with the lamp, one crewmember using his pocketknife to jiggle it, while they failed to notice the plane had gone off autopilot and, eventually, flew into the ground. The "pull up, pull up" audible warning was the first they knew they were in trouble. That was only a second or two before they crashed.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:43 PM on January 13, 2005

I remember hearing survivors' tales at the time about how the flight never seemed to be going fast enough. Now, every time I'm on a plane, I get nervous during take-off remembering that.

I've also been on a commercial flight that had to make a crash landing. The mood was surreal -- instead of chaos, it was eerily quiet. No one said a word. The only sound came from the laboring jet engines.

It's impossible to imagine what these people went through.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:52 PM on January 13, 2005

By no means do I wish to be disrespectful or derail the thread, but in case anyone seized on the word "Rochambeau" the way I did, here's part of the explanation. I'm not exactly certain how the migration to the other meaning occurred. We now return you to the thread in progress....
posted by kimota at 2:07 PM on January 13, 2005


american eagle flight 4184, out of indianapolis,
crashed during its approach to o'hare on 31 oct 1994. according to the NTSB:
the loss of control, attributed to a sudden and unexpected aileron hinge moment reversal that occurred after a ridge of ice accreted beyond the deice boots while the airplane was in a holding pattern during which it intermittently encountered supercooled cloud and drizzle/rain drops
this was the only plane crash near chicago involving the de-icing equipment in the 90's that i could find.

kimota, you have confused me. rochambeau was a french general who assisted washington in the revolutionary war
posted by crush-onastick at 2:14 PM on January 13, 2005

Thanks very much, crush-onastick.
posted by fossil_human at 2:31 PM on January 13, 2005

Thanks for the well-researched post, brownpau. I remember this crash well and for some reason, of all the names of erstwhile friends and colleagues that have eluded my grasp over these decades, I have never forgotten Lenny Skutnik's name.

There aren't too many pleasant ways to cash in your chips, but some deaths seems particularly harsh. The footage of the people in the water after the crash was horiffying yet riveting. Something like EB, I have a compulsion to read details about these awful events. For me, a way of processing things, or dealing with fears, I guess.

I am also fascinated with survivor stories - survival is often a weighty burden. Two years ago, the Guardian did a story called Bridge of Sighs reporting on what became of the five survivors and interviews with some family members of victims. It's an interesting piece.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:13 PM on January 13, 2005

It is always the human dimension of these tragedies that lingers. For me it is the December 1960 airline disaster in NYC and the lone survivor, an 11-year-old boy traveling alone to meet his mother just before Christmas. Sadly, the boy succumbed to his injuries a few days later. His story is a haunting reminder of how precious and unpredictable life can be.
posted by terrier319 at 3:22 PM on January 13, 2005

I was almost on this flight, actually. I was almost a year old at the time.
posted by etoile at 3:42 PM on January 13, 2005

I remember this crash well and for some reason, of all the names of erstwhile friends and colleagues that have eluded my grasp over these decades, I have never forgotten Lenny Skutnik's name.

Nor me. I remember watching it on TV, amazed at the selflessness of the man. Lenny Skutnik is a true hero.
posted by essexjan at 4:04 PM on January 13, 2005

Courtesy of, one of my favorite websites for this sort of thing:

From the Last Words section of the site:

A transcript of the cockpit "black box" voice recorder
an mp3 of the last seconds of that CVR, including the sound of the crash itself.

Not for the faint of heart or those with a flying phobia. As my friend zadcat says, though, it's fascinating to see the intrusion of the long odds on the day-to-day routine of air travel.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:29 PM on January 13, 2005

A while back I caught a NOVA presentation[comprehensive site] of the haunting CBC documentary[also an engrossing site] "The Investigation of Swissair 111." It was an unprecendented inside look at the 4-year investigation of the crash. It was riveting to say the least. Viewers are not pre-loaded with the conclusion -- we follow along as things unfold, painstakingly, for dedicated investigators.

Speaking of haunting: also unforgettable was the TV movie I saw as a kid, "The Ghost of Flight 401" based on a book about the aftermath of the 1972 Everglades crash mentioned above. Apparitions of the pilots reportedly appeared to other flight crews, warning of otherwise invisible problems with their aircraft, and promising "there will never be another crash of an L-1011 again."
[Goosebumps.] At the time it aired, it was true. (It isn't any more.)
posted by Tubes at 7:16 PM on January 13, 2005

Those who are interested in these sorts of things really should read William Langewiesche's Inside the Sky. Excellent, well-written, interesting essays about the physics and sensations of flight, and why planes crash.
posted by Vidiot at 8:06 PM on January 13, 2005

Thanks for the link, ikkyu2. Fascinating stuff!

The crash I recall vividly is Northwest Flight 255, which crashed shortly after takeoff at Detroit Metro in 1987. It was in the news for weeks afterward, and at one point it listed all the names (and short bios) of the people that had died. I remember being shocked to recognize a name - a girl I'd gone to high school with. We weren't friends, but, by virtue of the alphabet, her locker was next to mine for four years. Just a weird feeling to actually put a face to a name in a tragedy like that.

I can't find it online at the moment, but I remember previously reading the CVR transcript of Delta Flight 1141. The cockpit crew were joking with a flight attendant (which was against standard protocol during pre-flight check) and one of the officers actually said something like "Just think, if we crash, the last thing our families hear will be this conversation."
posted by Oriole Adams at 8:25 PM on January 13, 2005

As it happens, the crash involving Dick Ebersol (and conjecturally Paul Wellstone's as well) has prompted new warnings about ice on wings. You'd think the point would be clear, but as with the Challenger and Columbia disasters, there tends to be a rationalization of good luck in these sorts of things.

I remember that the man who allowed others to be rescued first was at first, as one of the links, implies, a mystery -- he was not positively identified as Arland Williams until much later (and then only circumstantially). Apparently newspapers running the photos were bombarded with relatives insisting that the man in business attire seen at fifty feet through blowing snow was the one they knew.

Of note, the TV movie is highly regarded at least by one observer (I have no memory of it), and the crash was fictionalized, more or less, in the book and film Random Hearts. (Two characters find that their spouses were on the flight, and having an affair.)

I was just discussing Flight 255, too, having one week ago driven through the section of I-94 where it crashed. It was one of only a few fatal air crashes with a single survivor; in keeping with EB's point about human error, the pilots forgot to set the flaps. The friend I was with noted that her company had a side venture leasing portable phones; that day they sold out their inventory, mostly to reporters, and realized they could turn it into a lucrative business, but by the end of the year the industry was giving phones away at gas stations. By coincidence, another acquaintance witnessed the 1979 American 191 crash.
posted by dhartung at 9:12 PM on January 13, 2005

dhartung, I notice the link regarding Cecelia Cichan didn't mention that both her parents, along with her brother, were killed in that crash. I remember that she was identified by her grandmother; the family had recently visited the grandparents, and grandma had painted Cecelia's fingernails with purple nail polish. (When the first reports of the crash were released, they mentioned the survival of a four-year-old with chipped lavender nails.) Cecelia went to live with her aunt and uncle in Alabama (as you mentioned) and has shied away from all press since then. At the time of the crash, an erroneous story got circulated (and reprinted endlessly) that Cecelia had been found in her seat with her mother's body covering her - a last valiant effort of love and protection, it seemed. However, it was later revealed in official reports that Cecelia had been found alone, 35 yards away from her mother's body, strapped into her airline seat.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:56 PM on January 13, 2005

Interesting a couple of you mention Flight 255. My aunt, uncle and two cousins were on that flight. I always wondered what happened to Ceclia Cichan. Considering the stuff the my family has continued to deal with 17 years or so after the crash, I can understand her reluctance to be more public.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 6:44 AM on January 14, 2005

My neighbor died on that flight, leaving his bride and newborn baby behind. The only good thing to come out of that tragedy was that Howard Stern was shown the door out of the city for his idiotic actions.

Not sure whether to thank you for this reminder or not, brownpau. That was a sad day.
posted by terrapin at 9:03 AM on January 14, 2005

When I was in police dispatcher training, one of the calls we listened to was Flight 255, out of DTW (which I grew up a few miles from). I'll never forget the first officer on the scene trying to describe what he saw while vomiting and gasping for air.
posted by QIbHom at 10:09 AM on January 14, 2005

I still cry ever time I see that footage Priscilla Tirado, blinded and numbed, thrashing in the icy water, alone. And then Lenny Skutnik steps out of a crowd, jumps in and pulls her out with his own hands. As long as I live, that will be my picture of heroism.

My father was in that ground traffic that day. He alternated bridges according to conditions, and we didn't know for hours that he was ok.
posted by NortonDC at 11:49 AM on January 16, 2005

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