Northwest Airlines Flight 255

Coordinates: 42°14′24″N 83°19′40″W / 42.2400°N 83.3277°W / 42.2400; -83.3277
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Northwest Airlines Flight 255
Aftermath of the Flight 255 crash: Aircraft debris field scattered along Middlebelt Road. The near bridge is the Norfolk Southern railroad, and the far bridges are the I-94 freeway.
DateAugust 16, 1987
SummaryImproper take-off configuration[1]
SiteDetroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport,
Romulus, Michigan, United States
42°14′24″N 83°19′40″W / 42.2400°N 83.3277°W / 42.2400; -83.3277
Total fatalities156
Total injuries6
Aircraft typeMcDonnell Douglas MD-82
OperatorNorthwest Airlines
IATA flight No.NW255
ICAO flight No.NWA255
Call signNORTHWEST 255
Flight originMBS International Airport,
Saginaw, Michigan, United States
1st stopoverDetroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport,
Romulus, Michigan, United States
Last stopoverSky Harbor International Airport,
Phoenix, Arizona, United States
DestinationJohn Wayne Airport,
Santa Ana, California, United States
Ground casualties
Ground fatalities2
Ground injuries5

On August 16, 1987 a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, operating as Northwest Airlines Flight 255, crashed shortly after takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, about 8:46 pm EDT (00:46 UTC August 17), resulting in the deaths of all six crew members and 148 of the 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.[3][4] It is also the deadliest aviation accident to have a sole survivor,[5] the deadliest plane crash in the history of the state of Michigan,[6] and the worst crash in the history of Northwest Airlines.

Aircraft and crew[edit]

N312RC, the aircraft involved in the accident, on final approach at John Wayne Airport, one year before the crash

The aircraft involved in the crash was a twin-engined 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]: 1  The jet was manufactured in 1981, entered service with Republic Airlines, and was acquired by Northwest Airlines in its merger with Republic in 1986. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-217 turbofan engines.[1]: 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.[7]

Flight 255's captain was 57-year-old John R. Maus, from Las Vegas, Nevada.[8] Maus was an experienced pilot who had worked for the airline for 31 years, flying Fairchild F-27, Boeing 727, Boeing 757, McDonnell Douglas DC-9, and McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft. Maus had logged 20,859 flight hours during his career, including 1,359 hours on the MD-82.[1]: 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".[1]: 6 

The flight's first officer was 35-year-old David J. Dodds, from Galena, Illinois.[8] 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. 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. Other pilots who had recently flown with Dodds later described his performance in favorable terms. Four flight attendants were also on board.[1]: 6 


NTSB diagram of Flight 255's takeoff and crash

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.[1]: 2  During the stopover in Detroit, a Northwest Airlines mechanic inspected the aircraft and the logbook. Around 20:29, the flight crew took their seats. At roughly 20:32 EDT, Flight 255 departed the gate in Detroit with 149 passengers (including 21 children) and six crew members.[1]: 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]: 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 automatic terminal information service 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, but the flight was cleared for takeoff on Detroit's runway 3C, the shortest available runway. 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.[1]: 3 

At 20:42:11, Flight 255 was instructed to position and hold at the beginning of runway 3C. The controller advised that a 3-minute delay was needed 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.[1]: 3 

Flight 255 made its takeoff roll on Detroit's runway 3C at 20:44:21, with Maus at the controls, as recorded on the aircraft's cockpit voice recorder (CVR):[1]: 3 

Partial transcript of Northwest Airlines Flight 255's CVR (Times are expressed in EDT; full transcript in appendix B)[1]: 46–50 [9][10]
* = Unintelligible word; () = Questionable text; (()) = Commentary; — = Break in continuity; Shading = Radio communication
Time Source Content
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.
20:44:14.8 ((Sound similar to parking brake released))
20:44:21 ((Sound of increasing engine power))
20:44:28 Captain Won't stay on.[a]
20:44:29.1 ((Sound of click))
20:44:30 First officer Won't go on?
20:44:31 Captain But they won't stay on—
20:44:32 First officer Okay power's normal.
20:44:38 Detroit tower (to Northwest Airlines Flight 1466) Northwest fourteen sixty six, metro tower, traffic you're 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))
20:44:39 Captain TCI[b] was un-set.
20:44:39.8 ((Sound of click))
20:44:42 First officer Can you get 'em now? There you go.
20:44:43 First officer They're on now[c] and clamped.[d]
20:44:45.6 First officer Hundred knots.
20:44:46.2 Captain Kay.
20:41:23 Northwest Airlines Flight 1466 (to Detroit tower) Northwest fourteen sixty six, so far that's approved; I'll advise different.
20:44:55 Captain Fuck. ((Sound of laugh))
20:44:57.1 First officer V1
20:44:57.7 First officer Rotate.
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 Voice unidentified (* right up to the V-bar.)
20:45:14.3 ((Sound of secondary stall recognition aural warning starts))
20:45:15.7 Captain (Ah) fuck.
20:45:17.1 ((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))
Voice unidentified *
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 kn (200 mph; 310 km/h), and began to roll from side to side[1]: 4  just under 50 ft (15 m) above the ground. The MD-82's rate of climb was greatly reduced as a result of the flaps not being extended,[1]: 67  and about 2,760 ft (840 m) past the end of runway 3C, the plane's left wing struck a light pole in an airport rental car lot.[1]: 22  The impact caused the left wing to start disintegrating and catch fire.[1]: 22, 26  The plane rolled 90° to the left, striking the roof of an Avis Car Rental building. The now uncontrolled plane 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.[1]: 22, 26 [11]


All of the six crew and 148 of the 149 passengers were killed in the crash.[1]: 25–26  Many of the passengers were from the Phoenix metropolitan area; one of them was Nick Vanos, an NBA center for the Phoenix Suns. Two motorists on nearby Middlebelt Road also perished 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.[12]

Foreign Victims[edit]

3 Britons, 1 Bahaman, 1 Guyanese


Of the 149 passengers aboard, 21 were children, the youngest being six months old. The sole survivor of the crash was Cecelia Cichan,[13] a four-year-old girl from Tempe, Arizona, who was returning home alongside her mother, Paula, father, Michael, and a six-year-old brother, David, after visiting relatives in Pennsylvania.[14][15] Romulus firemen found Cichan still belted in her seat, which was faced down. She was found several feet from the bodies of her family.[16][17] She sustained third-degree burns and fractures to her skull, collarbone, and left leg.[1]: 26  After the crash, Cichan moved to live with her maternal aunt and uncle in Birmingham, Alabama. She spoke to the media about her experience for the first time in 2011.[18][19] In a 2022 interview for WDIV-TV marking 35 years since the crash, John Thiede, now a Captain at the Romulus Fire Department, noted his friendship with Cichan since the mid-2000s when they made contact, and attended Cichan's 2006 wedding.[20]


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.[1]: 4 

The 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 spoken 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. 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.[21] This circuit breaker also controls some of the stall warning sounds. This coincided with the missing sounds from the CVR of the incident flight.[21]

While the investigators felt that the P-40 circuit breaker probably 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 NTSB could not 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."[1]: 53 

NTSB conclusions[edit]

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."[1]: 68 


After the crash, Northwest retired the flight number 255 along with its counterpart flight number 254, which was the outbound flight from Phoenix to Detroit. They were changed to Flights 260 and 261 beginning in September 1987 until the company merged with Delta Air Lines in early 2010. It was still operated by MD-82 alongside DC-9 and Boeing 727 but were replaced by Boeing 757 and Airbus A320 in the 1990s.[22] Delta continues the retirement of 255 by Northwest; as of 2024, Delta has no flight 255.[23]


Northwest Flight 255 Memorial Stone at GM Proving Ground, Milford, Michigan
Northwest Flight 255 memorial plaque in downtown Phoenix

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.[24] 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.[25] Also, a marker stone is located at the General Motors Proving Ground in Milford, MI, in memory of the 14 GM employees and seven family members who were killed in the crash. Most were traveling to the GM Desert Proving Ground in Mesa, Arizona.[citation needed]

On August 16, 2007, the 20th anniversary of the crash, a memorial service was held at the site. For some people affected by the incident, this was their first return to the site since the crash.[26]

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.[27] Two more memorial services were held there on August 16, 2017, the 30th anniversary,[28] and on August 16, 2022, the 35th anniversary.[8] Annual meet-ups had become a tradition.[28]

In popular culture[edit]

The crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 was covered in 2010 in "Alarming Silence", a season-9 episode of the internationally syndicated Canadian TV documentary series Mayday.[21]

The sole survivor of the crash was a four-year old child who appeared in the 2013 documentary Sole Survivor.[29][30] She did not speak publicly about the crash until 2013, when the documentary was released.[31]

In 2016, motorsport journalist 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 at Michigan International Speedway, and were witnesses to the plane crash. For years, Higgins feared the August NASCAR weekend after this crash, noting how he was a witness on Middlebelt Road.[32]

In Busy Philipps' 2018 memoir This Will Only Hurt a Little, Philipps mentioned that her friend Megan Briggs died the summer going into 5th grade on this plane crash. Her friend was eight years old and died alongside her parents and older brother.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.[1]: 3 
  2. ^ TCI is an abbreviation for Thrust Computer Indicator, part of the aircraft's digital flight guidance system.[1]: 9 
  3. ^ At this point the autothrottle is now engaged and the aircraft's computer is now in takeoff mode.[1]: 3 
  4. ^ This refers to the autothrottle system's clamp mode, which prevents movement of the autothrottle during the takeoff roll. This callout was made when the acronym "CLMP" appeared on the flight mode annunciator.[1]: 11, 48 


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa "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. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 9, 2016. Retrieved January 16, 2015. - Copy at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University.
  2. ^ "FAA Registry (N312RC)". Federal Aviation Administration.
  3. ^ "Accident Description: Northwest Airlines Flight 255". Aviation Safety Network. Flight Safety Foundation. August 16, 1987. Archived from the original on October 24, 2012. Retrieved January 10, 2013.
  4. ^ Ranter, Harro. "United States of America air safety profile". Aviation Safety Network. Flight Safety Foundation. Retrieved February 7, 2019.
  5. ^ "Ten worst aircraft accidents with lone survivors". ASN News. Flight Safety Foundation. May 16, 2010. Archived from the original on May 30, 2013. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
  6. ^ "Michigan marks 36 years since tragic Northwest Flight 255 crash in Romulus". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved March 6, 2024.
  7. ^ "Picture of the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (DC-9-82) aircraft". N312RC (cn 48090/1040) Still with Republic Airlines stripes after the merger.
  8. ^ a b c Russ, Morgan (August 16, 2022). "35 years later: Flight 255 crashes after takeoff from Detroit Metro Airport". WDIV. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
  9. ^ "Northwest 255 CVR Transcript". Cockpit Voice Recorder Database. Retrieved October 10, 2023.
  10. ^ Northwest Airlines Flight 255 cockpit voice recording on YouTube. Expletives are uncensored in the video.
  11. ^ "The Crash". Retrieved August 16, 2012.
  12. ^ Ray, Sally J. (1999). Strategic Communication in Crisis Management: Lessons from the Airline Industry. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 58. ISBN 978-1-56720-153-6.
  13. ^ Cecelia Cichan at IMDb
  14. ^ Wilkerson, Isabel (August 22, 1987). "Crash Survivor's Psychic Pain May Be the Hardest to Heal". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 27, 2006.
  15. ^ Peterson, Bill (August 21, 1987). "4-YEAR-OLD CECILIA AWAKENS, ASKS FOR MOTHER, THEN DOLL". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved October 9, 2022.
  16. ^ "Mother May Not Have Saved Lone Survivor of Plane Crash". The New York Times. November 23, 1987. ISSN 0362-4331.
  17. ^ "Flight 255". January 15, 2015.
  18. ^ "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.
  19. ^ Ryan, Scott (June 11, 2012). "Sole Survivor Of Metro Airport Crash Breaks Her Silence". CBS Detroit. Retrieved June 11, 2012.
  20. ^ Winchester, Hank; Haddad, Ken (August 15, 2022). "Firefighter who pulled lone survivor from Flight 255 wreckage talks about crash, 35 years later". WDIV-TV. Retrieved September 26, 2023.
  21. ^ a b c "Alarming Silence". Mayday. Season 9. Episode 2. Cineflix. March 15, 2010. Discovery Channel Canada.
  22. ^ "Northwest Airlines (NW) #261". FlightAware. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
  23. ^ "Flight Finder ✈ Detroit Metro Wayne Co (KDTW) - Phoenix Sky Harbor Intl (KPHX)". FlightAware. Retrieved June 1, 2019.
  24. ^ "Memorial Marker".
  25. ^ "A mother's long journey follows son's final flight". August 14, 2007. Retrieved November 1, 2009.
  26. ^ Donnelly, Francis X. (August 16, 2007). "Rising Above Tragedy". The Detroit News. Retrieved June 1, 2019 – via PressReader.
  27. ^ "Memorial held for victims of 1987 Flight 255 plane crash". The Oakland Press. August 17, 2012. Archived from the original on September 4, 2019. Retrieved September 4, 2019.
  28. ^ a b Terry, Niquel (August 16, 2017). "30 years later: Flight 255 bonds victims' families". The Detroit News. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  29. ^ "Sole Survivor Of Plane Crash Breaks Silence". Huffington Post. May 15, 2013.
  30. ^ Householder, Mike (May 15, 2013). "Survivor of 1987 Mich. plane crash breaks silence". Associated Press. Archived from the original on October 14, 2013.
  31. ^ "1987 Plane Crash: 'Sole Survivor' Cecelia Crocker Breaks Silence On Northwest Airlines Flight 255 Accident". International Business Times. May 15, 2013.
  32. ^ Higgins, Tom (August 11, 2016). "Tom Higgins: The Wreaths of Middlebelt Road". Competition Plus.

External links[edit]