How People Risked Their Lives To Save Passengers On Air Florida Flight 90

This week marks 40 years since the crash of Air Florida flight 90 in Washington DC. Operated by a Boeing 737, the flight struck a bridge before entering the Potomac River. While many of its occupants tragically died in the accident, the heroic actions of the public and emergency services kept the death toll from being higher by saving five of those onboard.

Air Florida Boeing 737-200
The jet (not pictured) was just under 13 years old. Photo: Peter Duijnmayer via Wikimedia Commons

The flight in question

Air Florida flight 90 was a scheduled domestic passenger service that originated at Washington National Airport (DCA). Its destination was Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (FLL), with a stop en route at Tampa International Airport (TPA). Both of these are located within the US state after which the airline in question was named.

40 years ago this week, on January 13th, 1982, the aircraft operating the flight was a Boeing 737-200 registered as N62AF. According to data from ATDB.aero, the plane joined Air Florida in July 1980, having previously served United Airlines since its delivery in February 1969. On the day in question, there were 74 passengers and five crew members onboard.

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The crash destroyed sections of bridge fencing. Photo: Getty Images

Snowy conditions delayed the flight’s departure by nearly two hours. However, improper de-icing procedures meant that ice and snow continued to gather on the jet’s wings. While the exhaust of an aircraft in front partially melted the snow into slush, it froze again during takeoff. A failure to activate the engine anti-ice system compounded the issues.

Heroic rescue efforts

With the newly re-frozen ice having gathered on the leading edges of the 737’s wings, it required 800 meters more runway than usual to achieve what was a rather rough takeoff. Having reached an altitude of just 352 feet, it crashed into the 14th Street Bridge after just 30 seconds in the air, before plunging into the icy waters of the Potomac River.

As well as the accumulation of ice, which reduced the jet’s lift, a key factor in the disaster was a lack of clarity between cockpit instrument readings regarding engine power. This came about due to the aforementioned failure to activate the anti-ice system. It meant that the pilots unknowingly allowed the plane to take off at a lower thrust rate than normal.

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The aircraft’s tail was extracted from the river a week after the crash. Photo: Getty Images

The resulting death toll was proportionally very high, with just four passengers and a flight attendant surviving. Four motorists on the impacted bridge also perished. However, the heroics of bystanders and the emergency services prevented the onboard survival rate from reaching zero. According to the Washington Post, a bystander named Lenny Skutnik risked his life by swimming to save a survivor who had been unable to grab a helicopter line.

Sheet-metal foreman Roger Olian also entered the icy water, aiming to rescue survivors, who were clinging to the plane’s non-submerged tail (the only component above the waterline), with a makeshift rope. He and Skutnik acted on instinct, not thinking of themselves as heroes but rather as people “who helped another human being.” Similarly, US police pilot Don Usher humbly credits his helicopter and its lifeline for the rescue, rather than himself.

Washington Bridge
A bridge at the crash site was later named after Arland Williams. Photo: Google Maps

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Held in high regard

Despite their humility, the heroism of the rescuers’ actions in the river was not to be understated. Skutnik and Olian received the Gold Lifesaving Medal, alongside Arland Williams, who was posthumously honored, having helped the five survivors before drowning.

Surviving flight attendant Kelly Duncan also received recognition for giving up her life jacket to injured survivor Patricia Felch. The actions of those involved showed a brave side of humanity, with Olian concluding that “the story is worth seeing and hearing about. (…) When you look back on it, you see more than just the tragedy. You see the triumph part of it.”

Did you know about the story of Air Florida flight 90? If so, what are your memories of the incident? Let us know your thoughts and recollections in the comments.

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