Northwest Airlines Flight 255

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Northwest Airlines Flight 255

The aftermath of the crash of Flight 255. N312RC's debris field is scattered along Middlebelt Road near Interstate 94 in Romulus.
Accident summary
Date August 16, 1987
Summary Pilot error (failure to set flaps and slats correctly)
Site Romulus, Detroit Metropolitan Area, Michigan, United States
Passengers 149
Crew 6
Injuries (non-fatal) 6 (including 5 on ground)
Fatalities 156 (including 2 on ground)
Survivors 1
Aircraft type McDonnell Douglas MD-82
Operator Northwest Airlines
Registration N312RC
Flight origin Tri-City Airport
Stopover Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport
Last stopover Sky Harbor International Airport
Destination John Wayne Airport

Northwest Airlines Flight 255, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, crashed shortly after takeoff at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport on August 16, 1987 at about 20:46 EDT (8:46 p.m. local time, 00:46 UTC August 17), killing all 6 of the crew and 148 of the 149 passengers. The sole survivor was a 4-year-old girl, Cecelia Cichan, who sustained serious injuries.[1] It was the second-deadliest aviation accident at the time in the United States and the second-deadliest involving the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series, and as of 2013 is the fourth-deadliest in both categories and remains the deadliest sole-survivor incident in the history of aviation. The flight originated at Tri-City Airport in Saginaw, Michigan, and was scheduled to terminate at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, with intermediate stops at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Michigan, near Detroit, and at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona.

Aircraft and crew[edit]

A Northwest Airlines MD-82.

The aircraft, a twin-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-82, tail number N312RC, was piloted by Captain John R. Maus, 57, and First Officer David J. Dodds, 35. Captain Maus was an experienced pilot who had been with the airline for almost 32 years. He had 20,859 hours of flying experience. First Officer Dodds had logged 8,044 flight hours throughout his flying career. He had been with the airline for more than 8 years.

Flight 255 was carrying 149 passengers and 6 crew. The jet was manufactured in 1981 and entered service with Republic Airlines. The aircraft was acquired by Northwest Airlines as a result of the merger with Republic Airlines in 1986, and the aircraft bore a mixed Republic/Northwest livery (still wore Republic stripes, but with "Northwest" titles and "Northwest Orient" logo on the forward fuselage) at the time of the accident.


Flight 255 made its takeoff roll on Detroit's Runway 3C at approximately 8:45 p.m. EDT with Capt. Maus at the controls. The plane lifted off the runway at 170 knots (195 mph, 315 km/h) and soon began to roll from side to side at a height just under 50 feet (15 m) above the ground. The MD-82 went into a stall and rolled 40 degrees to the left when it struck a light pole near the end of the runway, severing 17 feet (5.2 m) of its left wing and igniting jet fuel stored in the wing. It then rolled 90 degrees to the left, and struck the roof of an Avis rental car building.[2] The plane, now uncontrolled, crashed inverted onto Middlebelt Road and hit vehicles just north of the intersection of Wick Rd. The aircraft then broke apart, the fuselage skidded across the road, and then disintegrated and erupted into flames as it hit a railroad overpass and the overpass of eastbound Interstate 94.[3]


The lone survivor of the aircraft was four-year-old Cecelia Cichan (later Crocker) of Tempe, Arizona.[4] She was discovered by Romulus firemen still belted in to her seat, just feet from the bodies of her mother, Paula Cichan, her father, Michael, and her 6-year-old brother, David.[5] After the crash, Cecelia Cichan lived with her maternal aunt and uncle in Birmingham, Alabama, who shielded her from public attention.[6][7]

One of the passengers on Northwest 255 who died was Nick Vanos, a center for the Phoenix Suns basketball team. Two motorists on nearby Middlebelt Road also died. Five other persons on the ground were injured, one seriously. Fatalities were moved to the Northwest Hangar at the airport which functioned as a temporary morgue.[8]

More than thirty passengers on board Flight 255 were under the age of 25. The youngest was 4-month-old Katelyn Best, of Mesa, Arizona. Two 12-year-olds flying alone also died in the crash. Arlene Nelson was from Detroit and Justin Keener was from Scottsdale, Arizona.[citation needed]

Of the 154 people on board Flight 255, 110 were from Arizona. Most were residents of Phoenix or its surrounding areas. 18 people on the plane were residents of Michigan.[citation needed]


The NTSB stated: "The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the flight crew's failure to use the taxi checklist to ensure the flaps and slats were extended for takeoff. Contributing to the accident was the absence of electrical power to the airplane takeoff warning system which thus did not warn the flight crew that the airplane was not configured properly for takeoff. The reason for the absence of electrical power could not be determined."

The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) provided the evidence regarding the flight crew omission of the taxi checklist. The stall warning was annunciated. Using the CVR the investigators determined that the aural takeoff warning was not annunciated. The NTSB was unable to determine why there was an electrical power failure to the Central Aural Warning System (CAWS).

The failure of the takeoff warning system was caused by the loss of input 28V dc. electric power between the airplane's left dc. bus and the CAWS unit. The interruption of the input power to the CAWS occurred at the P-40 circuit breaker. The mode of interruption could not be determined.

Specifically, the NTSB could not determine if the circuit breaker had been tripped, intentionally opened, or if electrical current failed to flow through that circuit breaker to the CAWS while the breaker remained closed.

Because the P-40 circuit breaker was badly damaged during the accident, it was impossible for the Safety Board to determine positively its pre-impact condition. There were three possible conditions that would have caused power to be interrupted at the P-40 circuit breaker: the circuit breaker was intentionally opened by either the flight crew or maintenance personnel, the circuit breaker tripped because of a transient overload and the flight crew did not detect the open circuit breaker, or the circuit breaker did not allow current to flow to the CAWS power supply and did not annunciate the condition by tripping.[9]

Other MD-80 pilots reported that some operators would occasionally intentionally open the P-40 circuit breaker to prevent annoyance of stall/flap warning annunciation during taxi operations.

In 2008, Spanair Flight 5022 crashed in Madrid airport due to incorrect flap settings, also created by omission during taxi checklists and fault of associated warning system. 154 people also died in that accident which involved the same aircraft type as Northwest Airlines Flight 255.[10]

In remembrance[edit]

In memory of the victims, a black granite memorial was erected in 1994 and stands at the top of the hill surrounded by blue spruce trees at Middlebelt Road and Interstate 94, the site of the crash.[11] The memorial has a dove with a ribbon in its beak saying "Their spirit still lives on ..." and below it are the names of those who perished in the crash.

A monument to the victims of the crash, many of whom were from the Phoenix area, stands next to Phoenix City Hall in downtown Phoenix.[12]

On August 16, 2007, the twentieth anniversary of the crash, a memorial service was held at the Detroit crash site. For some of the people affected by the incident it was the first time they had returned to the site since the crash.

After the crash in 1987, Northwest followed standard procedure and no longer used 255 as a flight number. From late 1987 until Northwest was acquired by Delta in early 2010, the last nonstop flight from Detroit to Phoenix was renumbered as Flight 261. Delta continues the retirement of 255 by Northwest; as of 2013 there is no Delta flight 255.

On August 16, 2012, the 25th anniversary of the crash, a memorial service was held at the crash site. Family and friends of the victims and many people from across the Metro Detroit area including local media attended and a local priest read each name aloud. Many attended after local media revealed recent footage of Cecelia Cichan Crocker, the only crash survivor, of whom few knew her whereabouts or condition after the tragedy.[13]


Flight 255 is featured in Season 9 of National Geographic's show, Air Crash Investigation, in an episode titled "Alarming Silence/Cockpit Chaos" The episode shows the events of the crash, as well as the investigation, and includes interviews with Flight 255 rescue workers, investigators and other MD-80 pilots.

Cecelia Cichan Crocker appears in a 2013 documentary called Sole Survivor, about four sole survivors of plane crashes.[14][15] Crocker did not speak publicly about the crash until 2013 when the documentary was released.[16] Crocker has a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist in remembrance and says she is not afraid of flying.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Flight 255", Ankony, Robert C., Director, CFM Research.
  2. ^ "NTSB full report". Retrieved 2013-05-31. 
  3. ^ "The Crash". Retrieved 2012-08-16. 
  4. ^ Wilkerson, Isabel (1987-08-22). "Crash Survivor's Psychic Pain May Be the Hardest to Heal". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-12-27. 
  5. ^ "Flight 255", Ankony, Robert C., Director, CFM Research.
  6. ^ "Flight 255: Tragedy Lingers After 20 Years". The Arizona Republic. 2007-08-16. Retrieved 2013-06-28. 
  7. ^ Ryan, Scott (June 11, 2012). "Sole Survivor Of Metro Airport Crash Breaks Her Silence". CBS Detroit. Retrieved June 11, 2012. 
  8. ^ Ray, J Sally. Strategic Communication in Crisis Management Lessons from the Airline Industry (1999): 58
  9. ^ [Pg. 53 of the report]
  10. ^ "Flight 255: 20 years later". Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  11. ^ Memorial Marker
  12. ^ "A mother's long journey follows son's final flight." August 14, 2007. Retrieved on November 1, 2009.
  13. ^ Cecelia Cichan was interviewed in 2011 for Sole Survivor, a documentary film by cinematographer Ky Dickens, scheduled for release in mid-2013.
  14. ^ "Sole Survivor Of Plane Crash Breaks Silence". Huffington Post. May 15, 2013. 
  15. ^ Mike Householder, "Survivor of 1987 Mich. plane crash breaks silence", Associated Press, May 15, 2013.
  16. ^ a b 1987 Plane Crash: 'Sole Survivor' Cecelia Crocker Breaks Silence On Northwest Airlines Flight 255 Accident

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°14′24″N 83°19′40″W / 42.2400°N 83.3277°W / 42.2400; -83.3277