January 12, 2007

The sad anniversary of Air Florida Flight 90

Twenty-five years ago, as my Eastern Airline flight from Oklahoma City was landing at Washington National Airport, I noticed the pilot's apparent hesitancy as he brought the plane down in a blinding snowstorm. We  bounced on the runway and eventually pulled up at the gate. When I got off, I was surprised to find an almost empty terminal. Routinely, I went outside to take a taxi home. No taxis. So I crossed the street to board the Metro. After sitting on it for some thirty minutes, I learned that there had been a fire on the Metro on some other line, causing the entire system to shut down. My home was only about five miles from the airport so I took the only transportation available--my legs. As I walked toward Key Bridge, it was clear to me that walking was faster than the cars and trucks that were sitting motionless on the streets. Eventually I reached a pay phone, where I called my wife to tell her that I'd be late getting home. She cried in relief, explaining to me that the radio reported a plane crash at National and she was terrified that I might be on it.

The date was January 13, 1982. The crash was that of the now famous Air Florida Flight 90. I later learned that my own flight was the last one to land before the airport closed. What was so eerie to me was that as I walked home, I could see or hear nothing to indicate the tragedy that killed 78 passengers. In the blinding snow I could hear no sounds of helicopters hovering. I could hear no sirens. Even though the crash was on the next bridge east, the 14th Street Bridge, it was close enough that one would think some noise or sights might be evident. I guess it was that kind of storm.

Today's Washington Post describes how this crash left a legacy of failed communication in the airline business, especially what the article calls the "authoritarian cockpit culture dominated by captains." The conversation among the captain and others, while still on the ground and shortly after they took off, was recorded for history, including the following excerpts that may illustrate what the post article was talking about.

Captain: It's not really that cold.
First Officer: It's not that cold, cold, like ten with the wind blowing, you know. People's going to deplane in the snow here. Piedmont's going to park it on the ramp.
Captain: Here comes the chain tractor.

The First Officer indirectly expressed his concern here, which the Captain ignored. Other instances of the crew's concerns about taking off follow:

First Officer: Boy, this is shitty. It's probably the shittiest snow I've ever seen.
Captain: (inaudible) go over to the hangar and get deiced.
First Officer: Yeah, definitely.
Stewardess: The tire tracks in the snow, is that the way ours are, that low to the ground too?

          *      *      *
First Officer: What's the release good for, one hour? One hour release? Ha, ha. God, he said LaGuardia is not taking anybody. It's early yet. We may end up in Kennedy or somewhere, you never know (sound of laughter).

          *      *      *
Captain: Tell you what, my windshield will be deiced. I don't know about my wing.
First Officer: Well, what we really need is the inside of the wings anyway, the wing tips are gonna speed up by eighty anyway, they'll, they'll shuck all that other stuff (sounds of laughter).

       *      *      *
First Officer: Yeah, Palm thirty-five's in the holding pattern right now.
Captain: Gonna get your  wing now.
First Officer: D'they do yours? Can you see your wing tip now?
Captain: I got a little on mine.
First Officer: A little? This one's got about a quarter to half an inch on it all the way. Look how the ice is just hanging on his, uh, back there. It's impressive that these big old planes get in here with the weather this bad, you know? It's impressive.

       *      *      *
First Officer: See all those icicles on the back and everything? ... See this difference in that left engine and the right one? Don't know why that's different ... I'm certainly glad there's people taxiing on the same place I want to  go 'cause I can't see the runway, taxiway withough those flags.

       *      *      *
First Officer: Boy, this is a losing battle here on trying to deice those things. It gives you a false feeling of security, that's all it does.
Captain: That, uh, satisfies the Feds.

       *      *      *
First Officer: Boy, I'll bet all the school kids are just *** in their pants here. It's fun for them. No school tomorrow, yahoo (sounds of laughter).

       *      *      *
First Officer: Let's check these tops again, since we been sitting here a while. I think we get to go here in a minute.

       *      *      *
First Officer: Slushy runway. Do you want me to do anything special for this or just go for it?
Captain: Unless you got anything special you'd like to do.

Air Florida Flight 90 then took off. There isn't much transcript because the plane reached only to the 14th Street Bridge before ramming it and crashing into the Potomac River. Here are excerpts again:

First Officer: God, look at that thing. That doesn't seem right, does it? Ah, that's not right.
Captain: Yes it is, there's eighty--
First Officer: Naw, I don't think that's right... Ah, maybe it is.
Captain: Hundred and twenty.
First Officer: I don't know.

       *      *      *
First Officer: Larry, we're going down, Larry.
Captain: I know it.

(sound of impact)

There were many problems that led up to this tragedy, but, as the Post article observes,  at least one of these may be related to the language used in the cockpit.

Posted by Roger Shuy at January 12, 2007 01:42 PM