I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately, much of it from New England airports that are–to no one’s surprise, I hope–notoriously plagued by nasty weather in the winter months. I was once grounded at the Manchester-Boston Airport for over 24 hours along with various others. People were of course bitching about the lack of take-offs and general unruliness, and I was almost among them until I got sick of the carping and wondered if everyone there should have been shown a video of a Boeing 737 smashing into a bridge over the Potomac River minutes after leaving the ground in 1982.
Most pilots are, I believe, unfailingly competent. But not always.
Courtesy of Wikipedia:
Air Florida Flight 90, an Air Florida flight of a Boeing 737-222 airliner, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. on January 13, 1982 immediately after takeoff in a severe snowstorm from Washington National Airport in Arlington County, Virginia.
The aircraft carried 74 passengers and five crew members when it crashed during the failed takeoff attempt. All but five occupants died. The aircraft struck the 14th Street Bridge, which carries Interstate Highway 395 between Washington, D.C., and Arlington County, Virginia. It crushed seven occupied vehicles on the bridge and destroyed 97 feet (30 m) of guard rail before it plunged through the ice into the Potomac River. The crash occurred less than two miles (3 km) from the White House and within view of both the Jefferson Memorial and The Pentagon.
The accident killed 78 people, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge. A few survivors were rescued from the icy river by civilians and professionals; President Ronald Reagan commended these acts during his State of the Union speech a few days later. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of the accident was pilot error. The pilots failed to switch on the engines’ internal ice protection systems, used reverse thrust in a snow storm prior to takeoff, and failed to abort the takeoff even after detecting a power problem while taxiing and visually identifying ice and snow buildup on the wings.
It gets worse.
The plane had trouble leaving the gate when the ground services tow motor could not get traction on the ice. For approximately 30 to 90 seconds, the crew attempted to back away from the gate using the reverse thrust of the engines, which proved futile. Boeing operations bulletins had warned against using reverse thrust in those kinds of conditions.
After leaving the gate, the aircraft waited in a taxi line with many other aircraft for 49 minutes before reaching the takeoff runway. The pilot apparently decided not to return to the gate for reapplication of de-icing, fearing that the flight’s departure would be even further delayed. More snow and ice accumulated on the wings during that period, and the crew was aware of that fact when they decided to make the takeoff. Heavy snow was falling during their takeoff roll at 3:59 p.m. EST.
CAM-1 is the captain and CAM-2 the plane’s first officer in the following recorded conversation.
15:59:32 CAM-1 Okay, your throttles.
15:59:35 [SOUND OF ENGINE SPOOLUP]
15:59:49 CAM-1 Holler if you need the wipers.
15:59:51 CAM-1 It’s spooled. Real cold, real cold.
15:59:58 CAM-2 God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right.
16:00:09 CAM-1 Yes it is, there’s eighty.
16:00:10 CAM-2 Naw, I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is.
16:00:21 CAM-1 Hundred and twenty.
16:00:23 CAM-2 I don’t know.
16:00:31 CAM-1 Vee-one. Easy, vee-two.
16:00:39 [SOUND OF STICKSHAKER STARTS AND CONTINUES UNTIL IMPACT]
16:00:41 TWR Palm 90 contact departure control.
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]