30 years after Air Florida crash, skies safer than ever

This month and next, more than 2,600 jetliners will thunder down the same runway by the Potomac, bound for the balmy Florida sunshine.

If you are on board one of them, escaping Washington in winter, take heart that your departure is far safer than it was 30 years ago Friday, when a combination of blunders catapulted a plane from that runway into the 14th Street bridge.

The indelible chronicle of that snowy late afternoon began even as Air Florida Flight 90 sank into the Potomac. A TV crew that had been stuck in traffic jumped out to film the horror and the heroism for which the day is remembered.

The four people trapped by bridge traffic who died in their cars. The 74 crew members and passengers — three of them infants — killed in the crash. The passenger, Arland D. Williams Jr., who helped others escape the water and then was sucked under himself. And the bystander, Lenny Skutnik, who dived into the freezing water to save a drowning woman.

People who were touched by that day or caught up in the magnitude of the disaster will remember most of that. But 30 years after the fact, few people who cross the 14th Street bridge are aware that its formal name is the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge. And the 2.5 million people who take off from Reagan National Airport this winter will do so in the belief that the history of Jan. 13, 1982, can’t be repeated.

Experts say they’re right.

The lessons of that day and advances in training and technology over three decades have contributed to the safest era in aviation history. Although the skies are not risk-free, there hasn’t been a U.S. airline crash that killed more than 50 people since 2001.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators blamed the Flight 90 crash on a cockpit crew that didn’t de-ice the engines while awaiting takeoff and then relied on clearly dubious readings from instrument sensors that were clogged with ice.

The investigators said that although the captain, Larry Wheaton, and the co-pilot, Roger Alan Pettit, were cockpit veterans, they didn’t have much experience with winter weather. And they said that the plane sat on the taxiway too long, being pelted by snow and ice that fouled the critical leading edge of the wings and reduced the plane’s lift as it hurtled down a runway that ended at the Potomac.

* * *

The captain of a plane that taxied past as Flight 90 readied for takeoff commented to his crew, “Look at the junk on that airplane.”

Later he recalled: “Almost the entire length of the fuselage had a mottled area of snow and what appeared to be ice . . . along the top and upper side of the fuselage above the passenger cabin windows.”

* * *

There are at least three reasons that in 2012 your plane shouldn’t be covered with ice: better chemicals to keep the ice off, stricter regulations and better training for ground and cockpit crews.

“All three of those have evolved significantly over the last 30 years,” said Tom Hendricks, who flew for Delta Air Lines for 23 years before becoming senior vice president for safety, security and operations at Airlines for America, the trade group that until recently was known as the Air Transport Association.

Thirty years ago, Flight 90 was de-iced haphazardly by ground crews uncertain about the temperature, the NTSB report says. The plane sat waiting its turn for takeoff for 49 minutes after being sprayed with a de-icing chemical. It was snowing heavily.

De-icing chemicals have evolved since 1982, and new anti-icing mixtures developed in Europe were introduced in the 1990s. Applied after a de-icing, the liquid is thick enough to stick to the plane. It absorbs precipitation and then falls off as the plane gathers speed on the runway.

Pilots are now trained to use “holdover” tables that dictate how long they can remain on the ground after anti-icing fluid is applied.

“You’ve got to be airborne by that time, or you come back and you start the whole thing over again,” Hendricks said. “It’s in­cred­ibly structured. It used to not be that way. It’s very checklist-oriented. Pilots are highly trained in it.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a series of regulations and directives since the 1980s governing use of de-icing fluids and training for pilots and ground crews. The most recent, released in August, requires that planes with de-icing systems be equipped with automatic cockpit alerts and that smaller commercial planes be retrofitted with ice-detection systems.

* * *

Conversation from the cockpit as Air Florida begins takeoff:

Co-pilot, watching instruments: “God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right.”

Pilot: “Yes it is; there’s 80.”

Co-pilot: “Naw, I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is. . . .

* * *

Thirty years later, few of the 26,000 passengers who take off from National on a typical day remember the details of the Flight 90 crash. But the people flying their planes do.

“Within the air crew world, this is a well-known accident,” said Jim Hookey, the resident expert on jet engines at the NTSB.

It was not the weight of the ice, the wait to takeoff or the slush on the runway that caused the plane to crash. For reasons no one will ever know, two pilots with little experience in winter weather failed to turn on heating systems that keep the idling jet engines warm.

Without that heat, something — almost certainly ice — clogged engine openings that are essential to determining how much thrust those engines are generating. As a result, the cockpit instruments told the pilots that the engines were generating far more power than they really were.

Because of those bad readings, when the plane failed to gain altitude, the pilots didn’t realize that throwing the throttle open would give them more lift.

“Up to about eight or 10 seconds before they hit the bridge, if they had just pushed the throttle [wide open], they probably would have buzzed the bridge, but they would have made it,” Hookey said.

That lesson, he said, has been learned throughout the industry.

“Crews now are not hesitant to jam the throttle to save the plane,” Hookey said. “There’s probably been a lot of airplanes that have been saved because of the errors that these guys made.”

* * *

Conversation in the cockpit as Air Florida struggles to get airborne:

Pilot: “Come on forward . . . forward, just barely climb. . . . Stalling, we’re falling!”

Co-pilot: “Larry, we’re going down, Larry . . .”

Pilot: “I know it.”

[Sound of impact.]

* * *

A driver stuck in traffic on the northbound 14th Street bridge:

“I heard screaming jet engines. . . . 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. . . . Once the tail was across the bridge, the plane seemed to continue sinking very fast, but I don’t recall the nose pointing down. . . . I saw the cockpit go under the ice. I got the impression it was skimming under the ice and water.”

* * *

Rescue crews and ambulances struggled through traffic to reach the scene on that snowy afternoon. The federal government had released its employees early, and roads were jammed. Then came word about 30 minutes later that a crowded Orange Line train had slammed into a concrete pillar near the Smithsonian station.

The first fatal accident in the history of Metro would injure 25 passengers and kill three others.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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