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Accident case study: Air Florida Flight 90 - Crash into the Potomac River

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains By Dan Sobczak
July 2020

Editor's note: This content does not constitute flight instruction. Consult a certified flight instructor in your area for proper flight instruction.



On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, a Boeing 737-222, crashed in the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., killing 78 people. The crash took place only two miles from the White House.

The Air Florida flight took off from Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, with 74 passengers and 5 crew members on board.

The plane had flown into Washington from Florida in the early afternoon and was supposed to return to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, after a short stop.

With that background, let's look at the accident chain of Air Florida Flight 90 from that cold, snowy January day in 1982, which started before the aircraft left the gate.


Air Florida Flight 90's Accident Chain


Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Weather related: Moderate to heavy snowfall in the Washington D.C. area temporarily closed Washington National Airport, causing delays for all air traffic into and out of the airport.

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Weather related: When the airport reopened, the plane was de-iced with chemical anti-freeze, but the plane still had difficulty moving away from the gate due to the ice.

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Weather related: When Flight 90 eventually made it to the airport's only usable runway that day, it was forced to wait 45 minutes for clearance to take off.

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Pilot related: Apparently not wanting to further delay the flight, the pilot did not return for more de-icing, and worse, failed to turn on the plane's own de-icing system.

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Pilot related: The pilot and co-pilot discussed the situation, and the co-pilot said "It's a losing battle trying to de-ice these things. It gives you a false sense of security, that's all it does."

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Aircraft related: During the delay, ice was accumulating on the wings. By the time the plane reached the end of the runway, it was able to achieve only a few hundred feet of altitude.

Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains

Result: Thirty seconds later, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River, less than a mile from the runway.

Seven vehicles traveling on the bridge were struck by the 737 and the plane fell into the freezing water.

It was later determined that 73 of the people onboard the plane died from the impact, leaving only six survivors in the river. In addition, four motorists died in the crash.

Traffic conditions in Washington that day made it difficult for rescue workers to reach the scene.

A police helicopter rescues passengers from Air Florida Flight 90 in the icy cold Potomac River, January 13, 1982. Source: carnegiehero.org.

A police helicopter rescues passengers from Air Florida Flight 90 in the icy cold Potomac River, January 13, 1982. Source: carnegiehero.org.


Witnesses didn't know what to do to assist the survivors who were stuck in the freezing river, when finally a police helicopter arrived and began rescuing survivors in a very risky operation.

Two people in particular emerged as heroes during the rescue: Arland Williams and Lenny Skutnik.

Known as the "sixth passenger," Williams survived the crash, and passed lifelines to others rather than take one for himself. He ended up being the only plane passenger to die from drowning.

When one of the survivors to whom Williams had passed a lifeline was unable to hold on to it, Skutnik, who was watching the unfolding tragedy from the shore, jumped into the water and swam to rescue her.

Both Skutnik and Williams (along with bystander Roger Olian) received the Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal.

The bridge was later renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.


Air Florida Flight 90 Final Accident Report


The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the Air Florida Flight 90 accident was:

  • the flight crew's failure to use engine anti-ice during ground operation and takeoff;

  • their decision to take off with snow/ice on the airfoil surfaces of the aircraft;

  • and the captain's failure to reject the takeoff during the early stage when his attention was called to anomalous engine instrument readings.

The NTSB also noted that contributing factors to the accident were:

  • the prolonged ground delay between deicing and the receipt of ATC takeoff clearance during which the airplane was exposed to continual precipitation;

  • the known inherent pitchup 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 flightcrew in jet transport winter operations.


Air Florida Flight 90 Lessons Learned


While weather and icing issues were clear links in this accident chain, the ultimate cause of the crash was pilot related.

Wanting to get out of the bad weather conditions, get-there-itis may have been an important factor that contributed to this accident, when the pilots chose not to return for additional de-icing treatment.

That, and an apparent lack of faith in the system procedure for de-icing, as noted by the co-pilot's comment, contributed to this accident.

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As I watched the rescue attempts by the police helicopter on live television that January day, I was struck by the bravery of those who acted as heroes in this event -- for both the skill of the helicopter pilot in hovering with the chopper's skids just a few inches underneath the icy water at times -- and Williams and Skutnik, whose priorities were to think of the safe rescue of others before worrying about themselves.

Years later as a pilot, this accident still lingers in my memory as an important reminder to not rush decisions in aviation.

For more on the Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the Potomac River bridge, watch this documentary "When Weather Changed History: Potomac Crash".


Stay sharp!
The Flight Chain App team




Flight Chain App - NTSB Aviation Accident Reports - Helping pilots learn from accident chains Dan Sobczak is the founder of www.FlightChainApp.com, a mobile app that helps pilots learn from accident chains by making NTSB reports more convenient and easier to digest. Dan received his private pilot certificate in 2003.


Flight Chain App and its companion blog www.AheadOfThePowerCurve.com are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.


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2020


September 2020:
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August 2020:
Accident case study: Cory Robin's crash into a river in Ohio
July 2020:
Accident case study: Air Florida Flight 90 - Crash into the Potomac River
June 2020:
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May 2020:
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April 2020:
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March 2020:
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February 2020:
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February 2018:
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Flight Chain App and its blog Ahead of the Power Curve are committed to reducing general aviation accidents, helping improve aviation safety, and growing the pilot population.