Northwest Airlines Flight 255

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Northwest Airlines Flight 255
NW255 crashsite.jpg
Aftermath of the Flight 255 crash, N312RC's debris field scattered along Middlebelt Road, near I-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 from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport on August 16, 1987 at about 8:46 p.m. EDT (00:46 UTC August 17), killing all six crew members and 148 of its 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; as of 2013, the crash is the fourth-deadliest in both categories and the deadliest sole-survivor incident in aviation history. 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 Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona.

Aircraft and crew[edit]

Airplane in flight
A Northwest Airlines MD-82 similar to the accident aircraft

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

Flight 255 carried 149 passengers and six crew members. The jet was manufactured in 1981, entering service with Republic Airlines. It was acquired by Northwest Airlines in its merger with Republic in 1986, and the aircraft bore mixed Republic-Northwest livery (Republic stripes, with "Northwest" titles and the "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 Maus at the controls. The plane lifted off the runway at 170 knots (195 mph, 315 km/h), beginning to roll from side to side 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, striking the roof of an Avis car-rental building.[2] The plane (now uncontrolled) crashed, inverted onto Middlebelt Road and struck vehicles just north of its intersection with Wick Road. It then broke apart; the fuselage skidded across the road, disintegrating and bursting into flames as it hit a railroad overpass and the overpass of eastbound Interstate 94 (I-94).[3]


One of the passengers on Northwest 255 was Nick Vanos, a center for the Phoenix Suns. Two motorists on nearby Middlebelt Road also died and five people on the ground were injured, one seriously. The bodies were moved to the Northwest hangar at the airport, which served as a temporary morgue.[4]

More than 30 passengers on the flight were under age 25; the youngest was four-month-old Katelyn Best of Mesa, Arizona. Two 12-year-olds, Arlene Nelson of Detroit and Justin Keener of Scottsdale, Arizona, were unaccompanied minors.[citation needed]

The sole survivor of the crash was four-year-old Cecelia Cichan (later Crocker) of Tempe, Arizona.[5] She was found belted in her seat by Romulus firemen, several feet from the bodies of her mother, Paula Cichan, her father Michael and her six-year-old brother David.[6] After the crash, Cecelia lived with her maternal aunt and uncle (who shielded her from public attention) in Birmingham, Alabama.[7][8]


The NTSB said: "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 evidence of the flight crew's omission of the taxi checklist. Although the stall warning was annunciated, from the CVR investigators determined that the aural takeoff warning was not annunciated. The NTSB was unable to determine a cause for the electrical-power failure in 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.

The board could not determine if the circuit breaker had been tripped, intentionally opened, or if electrical current failed to flow through the breaker to the CAWS while the breaker was 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]

In 2008, Spanair Flight 5022 crashed near the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport due to incorrect flap settings created by the omission of the taxi checklist and failure of the warning system. 154 people died in that accident, which involved the same aircraft type as Flight 255.[10]


In memory of the victims, a black granite memorial was erected in 1994; it stands (surrounded by blue spruce trees) at the top of the hill at Middlebelt Road and I-94, the site of the crash.[11] The memorial has a dove with a ribbon in its beak reading, "Their spirit still lives on ..."; below it are the names of those who perished in the crash. Another monument to the victims (many of whom were from the Phoenix area) stands next to Phoenix City Hall.[12]

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

After the crash Northwest followed standard procedure, no longer using 255 as a flight number. From late 1987 until the company 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 2014, there is no Delta flight 255.

On August 16, 2012 (the 25th anniversary of the crash), a memorial service was again held at the crash site. Family and friends of the victims and others from across the Metro Detroit area (including local media) attended, and a local priest read each victim's name aloud. Many attendees had seen recent local-media footage of Cecelia Cichan Crocker (the only survivor), and few knew her whereabouts or condition after the crash.[13]


Flight 255 is featured in a season-nine episode of the National Geographic Channel's Mayday, "Alarming Silence". It explores the events surrounding the crash and its investigation, with interviews of Flight 255 rescue workers, investigators and other MD-80 pilots.

Cecelia Cichan Crocker appears in a 2013 documentary, Sole Survivor, about four sole survivors of plane crashes.[14][15] She 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 that she is unafraid 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. ^ Ray, J Sally. Strategic Communication in Crisis Management Lessons from the Airline Industry (1999): 58
  5. ^ Wilkerson, Isabel (1987-08-22). "Crash Survivor's Psychic Pain May Be the Hardest to Heal". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-12-27. 
  6. ^ "Flight 255", Ankony, Robert C., Director, CFM Research.
  7. ^ "Flight 255: Tragedy Lingers After 20 Years". The Arizona Republic. 2007-08-16. Retrieved 2013-06-28. 
  8. ^ Ryan, Scott (June 11, 2012). "Sole Survivor Of Metro Airport Crash Breaks Her Silence". CBS Detroit. Retrieved June 11, 2012. 
  9. ^ Page 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