Northwest Airlines Flight 255
Aftermath of the Flight 255 crash, N312RC's debris field scattered along Middlebelt Road, near I-94 in Romulus
|Date||August 16, 1987|
|Summary||Improper take-off configuration due to pilot error, mis-management of aircraft, and confusion|
|Site||Detroit Metropolitan Airport|
|Aircraft type||McDonnell Douglas MD-82|
|IATA flight No.||NW255|
|ICAO flight No.||NWA255|
|Call sign||NORTHWEST 255|
|Flight origin||Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (as Flight 750) MBS International Airport|
|1st stopover||Detroit Metropolitan Airport|
|Last stopover||Sky Harbor International Airport|
|Destination||John Wayne Airport|
Santa Ana, California
Northwest Airlines Flight 255, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, crashed shortly after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan 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, along with two people on the ground. The sole survivor was a 4-year-old girl, Cecelia Cichan, who sustained serious injuries. It was the second-deadliest aviation accident at the time in the United States.
Aircraft and crew
The aircraft involved in the crash was a twin-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (registration number N312RC) a derivative of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series of aircraft.:1 The jet was manufactured in 1981, entering service with Republic Airlines and acquired by Northwest Airlines in its merger with Republic in 1986. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217 turbofan engines.:6 At the time of the accident, the aircraft was painted in a hybrid livery between Northwest Airlines and Republic Airlines, featuring blue Republic striping with red Northwest titles and a white tail.
Flight 255's captain was 57-year-old John R. Maus, from Las Vegas, Nevada. Maus was an experienced pilot who had worked for the airline for 31 years, flying Fairchild F-27s, Boeing 727s, Boeing 757s, McDonnell Douglas DC-9s, and McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft (including the MD-82). Maus had logged 20,859 flight hours during his career, including 1,359 hours on the MD-82.:5 Other pilots who had flown with Maus described him as a "competent and capable pilot" who had a reputation for operating "by the book".:6
The flight's first officer was 35-year-old David J. Dodds, from Galena, Illinois. Dodds had logged 8,044 flight hours during his career (including 1,604 hours on the MD-82), and had worked for the airline for more than eight years.:6 Other than one training report during his probationary period, all of the airline's captains with whom Dodds had flown graded him as average or above average.:6 Other pilots who had recently flown with Dodds later described his performance in favorable terms.:6
The flight crew began August 16, 1987, by operating the incident aircraft as Northwest Flight 750 from Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, flying to MBS International Airport in Saginaw, Michigan. Departing Saginaw, the flight crew operated the same aircraft as Flight 255, flying to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, with intermediate stops at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Michigan (near Detroit), and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona. Other than a minor problem taxiing to the arrival gate, the flight from Saginaw to Detroit was uneventful.:2 During a stopover in Detroit, a Northwest Airlines mechanic inspected the aircraft and the logbook. At about 20:29, the flight crew took their seats. At approximately 20:32 EDT, Flight 255 departed the gate in Detroit with 149 passengers (including 21 children) and six crew members.:1 The crew read out the before start checklist, and started the engines at 20:33:04 began to start the engines directly. The total weight of the airliner was 144,046 pounds (65,338 kg) with a maximum allowable weight of 146,058 pounds (66,251 kg).:1–7
At 20:34:40 the pushback tug was disconnected from the aircraft and at 20:34:50 the controller cleared Flight 255 to taxi to runway number 3C (central). The crew was also informed about the update of the ATIS information, to which Dodds reported on weather data update. At 20:35:43 the ground controller instructed to use taxiway C and switch to frequency 119.45 MHz to communicate with another controller. Dodds acknowledged the instructions to follow the taxiways, but did not repeat the new frequency and did not tune the radio to it. The dispatch packet provided by the airline included takeoff performance data based on using runways 21L or 21R,:3 but the flight was cleared for takeoff on Detroit's runway 3C, the shortest available runway.:3 The flight crew had to reconfigure the on-board computer for taking off on runway 3C. Dodds also recalculated the allowable takeoff weight for the flight and concluded that it was within normal limits. In the process of taxiing, Flight 255 missed the required turn, so Dodds contacted the ground controller and received instructions on how to proceed to runway 3C, and also to switch to 119.45 MHz. Dodds again acknowledged the instructions and this time acknowledged the new frequency, and switched to it. The second ground controller specified the route to runway 3C. The crew also received a brief weather report.:3.
At 20:42:11 Flight 255 was instructed to line up and wait at the beginning of runway 3C. The controller advised that there would be a 3-minute delay to extinguish wake turbulence from the previous aircraft that had taken off. At 20:44:04 Flight 255 was cleared for takeoff.:3
Flight 255 made its takeoff roll on Detroit's runway 3C at approximately 20:44:21, with Maus at the controls.:3 However, during the takeoff roll, Maus noticed that the autothrottle was not engaged, as recorded on the aircraft's Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR):[a]
20:44:14.18 [SOUND SIMILAR TO PARKING BRAKE RELEASED]
20:44:21 [SOUND OF INCREASING ENGINE POWER]
20:44:28 CAM-1 Won't stay on.
20:44:28 [SOUND OF CLICK]
20:44:30 CAM-2 Won't go on.
20:44:31 CAM-1 But they won't stay on-
20:44:31 CAM-2 Okay power's normal.
20:44:31 TWR Northwest fourteen sixty six metro tower traffic your following is a very short final runway three left cleared to land winds three zero zero at one three.— Transcript, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 Cockpit Voice Recorder:123–126
The autothrottle was engaged at 20:44:38.
20:44:38.8 [SOUND OF CLICK]
20:44:42 CAM-2 Can you get 'em now- there you go.
20:44:43 CAM-2 There on now- clamp.— Transcript, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 Cockpit Voice Recorder:123–126
The CVR then recorded the following:
20:44:45.6 CAM-2 Hundred knots.
20:44:46.2 CAM-1 Okay.
20:44:51 TWR Northwest fourteen sixty six so far that's approved I'll advise different.
20:44:55 CAM-1 # [SOUND OF LAUGH]
20:44:57.1 CAM-2 V1
20:44:57.7 CAM-2 Rotate
20:44:59.1 [SOUND SIMILAR TO NOSE GEAR STRUT EXTENSION]
20:45:02.7 [SOUND SIMILAR TO NOSE GEAR SPINNING DOWN]
20:45:05.1 [SOUND OF STICK SHAKER STARTS AND CONTINUES UNTIL THE END OF TAPE]
20:45:09.1 [SOUND OF SECONDARY STALL RECOGNITION AURAL WARNING STARTS]
20:45:11.4 [SOUND OF SECONDARY STALL RECOGNITION AURAL WARNING STARTS]
20:45:11.4 CAM-? (* right up to the vee bar)
20:45:14.3 [SOUND OF SECONDARY STALL RECOGNITION AURAL WARNING STARTS]
20:45:15.7 CAM-? (Ah) #.
20:45:17.1 [SOUND OF SECONDARY STALL RECOGNITION AURAL WARNING STARTS]
20:45:18 102UM Metro tower lifeguard copter one zero two uniform mike is ah.
20:45:19.3 [SOUND OF FIRST IMPACT]
20:45:19.7 [SOUND OF SECOND IMPACT]
20:45:22.7 [SOUND OF THIRD IMPACT]
20:45:23.1 [SOUND OF FOURTH IMPACT]
20:45:24.2 [SOUND OF FIFTH IMPACT]
20:45:24.4 [SOUND OF SIXTH IMPACT]
20:45:24.6 [SOUND OF SEVENTH IMPACT]
20:45:24.7 [END OF RECORDING]— Transcript, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 Cockpit Voice Recorder:124–126
The plane lifted off the runway at 170 knots (195 mph, 315 km/h), and began to roll from side to side:4 just under 50 feet (15 m) above the ground.The MD-82's rate of climb was greatly reduced as a result of the flaps not being extended,:67 and approximately 2,760 feet (840 m) past the end of runway 3C, the plane's left wing struck a light pole in an airport rental car lot.:22 The impact caused the left wing to start disintegrating and catch fire.:22,26 The plane rolled 90 degrees to the left, striking the roof of an Avis Car Rental building. The plane (now uncontrolled) crashed inverted onto Middlebelt Road and struck vehicles just north of its intersection with Wick Road, killing two people on the ground in a car. It then broke apart, with the fuselage skidding across the road, disintegrating and bursting into flames as it hit a railroad overpass and the overpass of eastbound Interstate 94 (I-94).:22,26
The National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation into the crash.
Eyewitnesses stated that Flight 255's takeoff roll was longer than usual, and that the aircraft took off at a steeper angle. Whether the flaps and slats were extended, the testimony of the witnesses varied, but most responded that they were extended, although they could not tell how far.:4
The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) provided evidence of the flight crew's omission of the taxi checklist. Although the stall warning was annunciated, investigators determined from the CVR that the aural takeoff warning was not annunciated by that warning system. 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 NTSB also could not determine if the circuit breaker had been tripped, intentionally opened, or if electric 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.":53
The NTSB published its final report on May 10, 1988, in which it concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error:
"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 that 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.":68
After the crash Northwest followed standard procedure; the airline no longer used 255 as a flight number. From late 1987 until the company merged with Delta Air Lines 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 2019[update], there is no Delta flight 255.
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. 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.
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.
On August 16, 2012, the 25th anniversary of the crash, another memorial service was 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 (now known by her married name Crocker), and few knew her whereabouts or condition after the crash.
On August 16, 2017, the 30th anniversary of the crash, yet another memorial service held at the crash site.
In popular culture
The story of the disaster was featured in a ninth-season episode of the Discovery Channel Canada/National Geographic series Mayday (known as Air Emergency or Air Disasters in the US, Mayday in Ireland and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and the rest of world). The episode is titled "Alarming Silence" (broadcast in some countries as "Cockpit Chaos"). 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 appears in a 2013 documentary Sole Survivor, about four sole survivors of plane crashes. She did not speak publicly about the crash until 2013, when the documentary was released. Cichan has a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist in remembrance and says that she is not afraid of flying.
Around the August NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway, Tom Higgins posts his recollections of Northwest 255. Higgins, then of The Charlotte Observer, and fellow NASCAR beat reporters Steve Waid and Gary McCredie (of Grand National Scene) arrived at a hotel near the Detroit Metropolitan Airport awaiting a Monday morning flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, after finishing coverage of the Champion Spark Plug 400 that afternoon, and were witnesses to the plane crash.
- List of accidents and incidents involving commercial aircraft
- List of sole survivors of airline accidents or incidents
- British European Airways Flight 548
- Delta Air Lines Flight 1141
- LAPA Flight 3142
- Lufthansa Flight 540
- Mandala Airlines Flight 91
- Spanair Flight 5022
- CAM-1 is the captain; CAM-2 is the first officer; CAM-? is an unidentified voice; TWR is the tower controller; 102UM is Lifeguard one zero two uniform mike; * unintelligible word; # = expletive deleted; ( ) = questionable text; [ ] = editorial insertion; - = pause
- "Aircraft Accident Report, Northwest Airlines, Inc. McDonnell Douglas DC-9-82, N312RC, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Romulus, Michigan, August 16, 1987" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. May 10, 1988. NTSB/AAR-88/05. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
- Ranter, Harro. "Aviation Safety Network > ASN Aviation Safety Database > Geographical regions > United States of America air safety profile". aviation-safety.net. Retrieved February 7, 2019.
- "Picture of the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (DC-9-82) aircraft". Airliners.net.
N312RC (cn 48090/1040) Still with Republic Airlines stripes after the merger.
- "The Crash". Flight255memorial.com. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
- "Northwest Airlines (NW) #261 ✈ FlightAware". FlightAware. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
- "Flight Finder ✈ Detroit Metro Wayne Co (KDTW) - Phoenix Sky Harbor Intl (KPHX) ✈ FlightAware". FlightAware. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
- "Memorial Marker". www.flight255memorial.com.
- "A mother's long journey follows son's final flight." AZCentral.com. August 14, 2007. Retrieved on November 1, 2009.
- "Rising Above Tragedy". www.pressreader.com. The Detroit Times. August 16, 2007. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
- Cecelia Cichan was interviewed in 2011 for Sole Survivor, a documentary film by cinematographer Ky Dickens, scheduled for release in mid-2013.
- Terry, Niquel (August 16, 2017). "30 years later: Flight 255 bonds victims' families". The Detroit News. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- "Alarming Silence". Mayday. Season 9. 2010. Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic.
- "Sole Survivor Of Plane Crash Breaks Silence". Huffington Post. May 15, 2013.
- Householder, Mike, "Survivor of 1987 Mich. plane crash breaks silence", Associated Press, May 15, 2013.
- "1987 Plane Crash: 'Sole Survivor' Cecelia Crocker Breaks Silence On Northwest Airlines Flight 255 Accident". May 15, 2013.
- Higgins, Tom (August 11, 2016). "Tom Higgins: The Wreaths of Middlebelt Road". Competition Plus.