What Actually Happened to Air Florida Flight 90?

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What Actually Happened to Air Florida Flight 90? On January 13, 1982, the Washington DC metropolitan region was in the middle of a brutal winter. Moreover, it was an extraordinary period of freezing temperatures.

Air Florida Flight 90 was scheduled for a 2:15pm EST departure from local airport Washington National Airport, now renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Flight 90 would leave from National’s gate 12 for a flight to Fort Lauderdale International Airport, FL. In addition, the flight was scheduled to make an intermediate stop at Tampa, FL. 

Of course that would never happen.

Unfortunately for Flight 90, it would fail to gain altitude, and crash into the 14th Street Bridge. Furthermore, the plane would hit six cars and a truck on the bridge, killing four of the motorists.

After the crash on the bridge, the plane then continued forward and plunged into the freezing Potomac River. Soon only the tail section which had broken off remained afloat.

A small number of survivors clung to the tail wreckage, the only part of the plane visible above the river’s icy surface. Heroic efforts were made to reach the survivors from the shoreline, but they were unsuccessful.

Rescue became possible when Eagle One, the U.S. Park Police’s helicopter arrived. The Pilot Don Usher and paramedic Gene Windsor dropped lines and began pulling survivors to the shoreline.

At great risk to themselves, the helicopter crew made several trips, once going low enough that the helicopter skids went below the waterline. Returning to the wreckage a final time, the helicopter crew found the final survivor – an older man who had passed the lines to others so that they could be rescued – had sunk below the water and was lost. He was later identified as Arland D. Williams, Jr. A span of the 14th Street Bridge was renamed to honor his heroism and sacrifice. 

With news cameras on site, people across the region watched the event unfold.

Dramatic footage of the rescue became recorded by Chester Panzer of WRC-TV. Earning him finalist honors for the Pulitzer Prize. The image below is a still shot from his coverage. Courtesy of Chester Panzer.


Air Florida Flight 90 (Boeing 737-200) stalled shortly after take-off from Washington National Airport and crashed into the Potomac River, 74 of the 79 on board lost their lives.

The cause of the incident was a ice and snow build-up on the wings and pilot errors.

But, a number of factors combined that day to create a hornet’s nest of dilemma for the crew.

NTSB diagram of flight path for Air Florida Flight 90

The main reason the plane crashed was the PT2 probes on the engines became iced over. And they did not have takeoff power due to erroneous indications on their EPR’s. Many feel this occurred when the plane was waiting for takeoff in line. The pilots positioned the plane close behind another plane, with the thinking that the positioning would add to the de-icing. But, in fact the opposite most likely occurred. Instead of Air Florida receiving enough heat to melt its snow and ice, it was enough to cause a little melting which then resulted in immediate freezing. Furthermore, the melting ice covered the PT2 probes and then refroze back on to them.

In addition, when Air Florida had received de-icing treatment, there were no plugs or covers installed on her engines. So some glycol residue would have remained on the PT2 probes. This residue would have attracted snow particles before takeoff as the plane made its way around the airport.

Moreover, the plane also used its own engines to push back from gate 12 which according to ground crew blew up a ton of snow which fell back onto the plane and added to accumulation on her. And this was AFTER the de-icing application by ground crew.

What is even more upsetting is the First Officer saying on the Cockpit Voice Recorder 4 times during takeoff that something was not right.

“God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right.”…”Naw, I don’t think that’s right.”

And yet, the Captain ignored his warnings.

The plane required 5,400 feet to take off, that is 2,000 more than it should have and an extra 15 seconds. The pilot had time to abort the takeoff. The plane initially achieved some climb, but almost immediately, the stall warning stick shaker activated after lift-off and would continue until final impact. 

Final conversation of the pilot & first officer:

16:00:45 CAM-1 Forward, forward, easy. We only want five hundred.

16:00:48 CAM-1 Come on forward….forward, just barely climb.

16:00:59 CAM-1 Stalling, we’re falling!

16:01:00 CAM-2 Larry, we’re going down, Larry….

16:01:01 CAM-1 I know it.

16:01:01 [SOUND OF IMPACT]

[End of Recording]

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What Actually Happened to Air Florida Flight 90?