Northwest Airlines Flight 255
|Date||August 16, 1987|
|Summary||Improper take-off configuration due to pilot error, mis-management of aircraft, and confusion|
|Site||Detroit Metropolitan Airport,|
Romulus, Michigan, U.S.
|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,|
Saginaw, Michigan, U.S.
|1st stopover||Detroit Metropolitan Airport|
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
|Last stopover||Sky Harbor International Airport,|
Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
|Destination||John Wayne Airport,|
Santa Ana, California, U.S.
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 who sustained serious injuries. It was the second-deadliest aviation accident at the time in the United States. It is also the deadliest aviation accident to have a sole survivor.
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. 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 scheduled 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 the 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. 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 (center). 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 allow the wake turbulence from the previous aircraft that had taken off to dissipate. 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, as recorded on the aircraft's Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR)::3
|Transcript of Northwest Airlines Flight 255's Cockpit Voice Recorder (Times are expressed in EDT)|
|# = Expletive deleted; * = Unintelligible word; () = Questionable text; (()) = Commentary; - = Break in continuity; Shading = Radio communication|
|20:43:48||Detroit tower (to 594CC)||Citation five ninety four Charlie charlie metro tower winds three zero zero at thirteen runway three right cleared to land where are you parking on the field.|
|20:43:55||594CC (to Detroit tower)||Three zero zero at one three and we'll be going to page avjet.|
|20:43:59||Detroit tower (to Northwest Airlines Flight 766)||Northwest seven sixty six contact ground one two one point eight.|
|20:44:04||Detroit tower (to Northwest Airlines Flight 255)||Northwest two fifty five runway three center turn right heading zero six zero cleared for takeoff.|
|20:44:08||First officer (to Detroit tower)||Right to zero six zero cleared to go northwest two fifty five.|
|20:44:12||Detroit tower (to Northwest Airlines Flight 185)||Northwest one eighty five metro tower three center taxi into position and hold you have about three minutes two to three minutes on the runway.|
|20:44:17||Northwest Airlines Flight 185 (to Detroit tower)||Okay position and hold northwest one eighty five.|
|20:44:14.18||((Sound similar to parking brake released))|
|20:44:21||((Sound of increasing engine power))|
|20:44:28||Captain||Won't stay on.[a]|
|20:44:28||((Sound of click))|
|20:44:31||First officer||Won't go on.|
|20:44:31||Captain||But they won't stay on-|
|20:44:31||First officer||Okay power's normal.|
|20:44:31||Detroit tower||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.|
|20:44:38.8||((Sound of click))|
|20:44:43||First officer||Can you get 'em now- there you go.|
|20:44:43||First officer||There on now- clamp.[b]|
|20:44:45.6||First officer||Hundred knots|
|Northwest fourteen sixty six so far that's approved I'll advise different.|
|20:44:55||Captain||# ((Sound of laugh))|
|20:44:59.1||((Sound similar to nose gear strut extension))|
|20:45:02.7||((Sound similar to nose wheel 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))|
|20:45:11.9||Unknown||(* right up to the vee bar)|
|20:45:14.3||((Sound of secondary stall recognition aural warning starts))|
|20:45:18||102UM (to Detroit tower)||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))|
|Time not stated||Unknown||*|
|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))|
The plane lifted off the runway at 170 knots (200 mph; 310 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 Norfolk Southern railroad overpass and the overpass of eastbound Interstate 94 (I-94).:22,26
The crash was witnessed from the air traffic control tower, and almost immediately the airport was shut down.
The flight crew and all but one of the passengers were killed in the crash.:25–26
One of the passengers on Northwest 255 was Nick Vanos, an NBA 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.
The sole survivor of the crash was a four-year-old girl from Tempe, Arizona. Romulus firemen found her still belted in her seat, which was faced down. She was found several feet from the bodies of her mother, father, and six-year-old brother. She sustained severe burns and fractures to her skull, collarbone, and left leg.:25–26 After the crash, the girl lived with her maternal aunt and uncle in Birmingham, Alabama. She spoke to the media about her experience for the first time in 2011.
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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash.
Eyewitnesses stated that Flight 255's takeoff roll was longer than usual and that the aircraft took off at a steeper angle. Their statements on whether or not the flaps and slats were extended 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 investigators had talked with other MD-80 pilots, and learned that many pilots found it a nuisance to hear a take off configuration warning ("Slats ... Slats... Slats....") while they were simply taxiing on the airport property. It was so common for pilots to pull the P-40 circuit breaker that the area around the circuit breaker was smudged from routinely being manipulated. This circuit breaker also controls some of the stall warning sounds. This coincided with the missing sounds from the CVR of the incident flight.
While the investigators felt that it was probable that the P-40 circuit breaker had been pulled by the pilot on the incident flight, they could not definitely confirm 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, the Safety Board couldn't determine positively its pre-impact condition. Three possible conditions 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 flight crew'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 2020[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. Another was held there on August 16, 2017, the 30th anniversary. Annual meet-ups had become a tradition.
In popular culture
Around the August NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway, Tom Higgins posted 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
- During the takeoff roll, the pilots noticed that the aircraft's autothrottle was not engaged, indicating that the aircraft's computer was not in takeoff mode
- At this point the autothrottle is now engaged and the aircraft's computer is now in takeoff mode.
- "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.
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- "Ten worst aircraft accidents with lone survivors". ASN News. Aviation Safety Network. May 16, 2010. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
- "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.
- Ray, J Sally. Strategic Communication in Crisis Management Lessons from the Airline Industry (1999): 58
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- "Flight 255". robertankony.net. January 15, 2015.
- "Mother May Not Have Saved Lone Survivor of Plane Crash". The New York Times. Associated Press. November 23, 1987. ISSN 0362-4331.
- "Flight 255: Tragedy Lingers After 20 Years". The Arizona Republic. August 16, 2007. Archived from the original on June 29, 2013. Retrieved June 28, 2013.
- Ryan, Scott (June 11, 2012). "Sole Survivor Of Metro Airport Crash Breaks Her Silence". CBS Detroit. Retrieved June 11, 2012.
- "Alarming Silence". Mayday. Season 9. Episode 2. Cineflix. March 15, 2010. Discovery Channel Canada.
- "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 November 1, 2009.
- "Rising Above Tragedy". www.pressreader.com. The Detroit Times. August 16, 2007. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
- "Memorial held for victims of 1987 Flight 255 plane crash". www.theoaklandpress.com. The Oakland Press. August 17, 2012. Retrieved September 4, 2019.
- Terry, Niquel (August 16, 2017). "30 years later: Flight 255 bonds victims' families". The Detroit News. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
- "Sole Survivor Of Plane Crash Breaks Silence". Huffington Post. May 15, 2013.
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- Higgins, Tom (August 11, 2016). "Tom Higgins: The Wreaths of Middlebelt Road". Competition Plus.