Northwest Airlines Flight 255
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|Date||August 16, 1987|
|Summary||Pilot error (failure to set flaps and slats correctly)|
|Site||Romulus, Detroit Metropolitan Area, Michigan, United States|
|Injuries||6 (including 5 on ground)|
|Fatalities||156 (including 2 on ground)|
|Aircraft type||McDonnell Douglas MD-82|
|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 was a flight that 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. The flight, made by a McDonnell Douglas MD-80, crashed after takeoff in Romulus on August 16, 1987, at about 20:46 EDT (8:46 p.m. local time, 00:46 UTC August 17), killing all of the crew and passengers except for a 4-year-old girl, Cecelia Cichan, who sustained serious injuries, according to a report by the FAA's Office of Aviation Research. At the time, it was the second-deadliest aviation accident in the United States and the second-deadliest involving the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series, and as of 2013[update] is the fourth-deadliest in both categories.
Aircraft and crew 
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. Northwest 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 at the time 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 18 feet (5.5 m) of its left wing and igniting jet fuel stored in the wing. It then rolled 90 degrees to the right, and its right wing tore through the roof of an Avis rental car building. 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.
The lone survivor of the aircraft was four-year-old Cecelia Cichan of Tempe, Arizona. Her mother, Paula Cichan, died in the crash, along with her father, Michael, and her 6-year-old brother, David. After the crash, Cecelia Cichan lived with relatives in Birmingham, Alabama, who shielded her from public attention.
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 a hangar at the airport functioning as a temporary morgue.
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.
The NTSB stated: "The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the flightcrew'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 flightcrew 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 flightcrew 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 preimpact 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 flightcrew or maintenance personnel, the circuit breaker tripped because of a transient overload and the flightcrew 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.
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.
21 years later, 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.
In remembrance 
In memory of the victims, a black granite memorial, which was erected in 1994 — seven years after the event — stands at the top of the hill surrounded by blue spruce trees at Middlebelt Road and Interstate 94, the site of the crash. 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.
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[update] 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, the only crash survivor, of whom few knew her whereabouts or condition after the tragedy.
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.
See also 
- List of accidents and incidents on commercial airliners
- Spanair Flight 5022, another MD-82 that crashed in 2008 for similar reasons to NW255.
- Delta Air Lines Flight 1141, another crash somewhat similar to this one.
- Yemenia Flight 626, a 2009 plane crash of which a young female passenger was also the sole survivor.
- Northwest Airlink Flight 2268, another aviation disaster that took place at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in 1987.
- LAPA Flight 3142
- Lufthansa Flight 540
- American Airlines Flight 191, the USA's worst aviation disaster (discounting 9/11) to date.
- West Caribbean Airways Flight 708, another MD-82 that crashed on the same date (August 16) as NW255 in 2005.
- List of sole survivors of airline accidents or incidents
- "The Crash". Flight255memorial.com. Retrieved 2012-08-16.
- Wilkerson, Isabel (1987-08-22). "Crash Survivor's Psychic Pain May Be the Hardest to Heal". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-12-27.
- "Sole Survivor Of Metro Airport Crash Breaks Her Silence". June 11, 2012 5:12 AM. Retrieved June 11, 2012 5:12 AM.
- "Flight 255 Tragedy Lingers".
- Ray, J Sally. Strategic Communication in Crisis Management Lessons from the Airline Industry (1999): 58
- [Pg. 53 of the report]
- "Flight 255: 20 years later". Retrieved 2008-08-10.
- "A mother's long journey follows son's final flight." AZCentral.com. August 14, 2007. Retrieved on November 1, 2009.
- Cecelia Cichan was interviewed in 2011 for Sole Survivor, a documentary film by cinematographer Ky Dickens, scheduled for release in mid-2013.
- NTSB Full Report
- NTSB Probable Cause
- Pre-crash photos of N312RC on Airliners.net
- Northwest Flight 255 Memorial Website