Flight 255 never made it more than 50 ft off the ground before it crashed onto a major roadway just outside of the busy Detroit Metro Airport. Tuesday marks the 35th anniversary of the crash that took the lives of 148 passengers and six crew members. Among all the death and chaos of the seventh deadliest plane crash in American aviation history only one person — a four-year-old girl — made it out alive.
Several small complications added up to the devastating crash of the Northwest McDonnell Douglas MD-82 flight from Detroit to Phoenix: A strong midwest thunderstorm had rolled in over Romulus, Michigan the night of August 16, 1987. Ground control, 10 minutes before take off, changed the departure runway to the shortest of the three runways available. Pilots had to determine if they were too heavy for the runway and then were unable to find the new runway. They had to radio ground control for directions, leading to another delay and crucially, a missed TAXI checklist.
By the time the plane was cleared for take off, Flight 255 was running 45 minutes behind schedule. The pilots then had trouble engaging the autothrottle, but were able to engage it before take off. Finally the, the stall warning on the stick shaker engaged. WDIV 4 has a rundown of what happened next:
Witnesses of Flight 255 agreed that the takeoff roll was longer than what is normal in similar airplane takeoffs. The witnesses also stated that the flight rotation began about 1,200-1,500 feet from the end of the runway and that the tail of the aircraft came close to striking the runway.
After the airplane was airborne, it began rolling from left to right. Witnesses say that after rolls between 15 degrees and 90 degrees, the plane’s wings leveled off before veering violently to the left and striking a light pole in a rental car parking lot. The pole sliced a four or five-foot chunk off of the left wing and the plane continued to roll to the left.
Witnesses reported that the plane was at a 90-degree left wing down position when it struck a roof. The plane was still rolling to the left when it collided with the ground, Middlebelt Road. The aircraft continued to slide on the road, hitting multiple rental cars, a railroad embankment, and three occupied vehicles before bursting into flames as it hit a railroad and an overpass on I-94.
There were 148 passengers and six crewmembers killed. The only survivor, Cecelia Cichan, a four-year-old from Arizona, was traveling with her mother, father, and older brother.
Several possible factors were investigated but, in the end, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the crash was because the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 wasn’t properly configured for take off. The sudden change of runway meant the pilots needed to set the plane’s flaps and slats to 11 degrees. When the flight data recorded was found, it indicated that the flaps and slats were completely retracted. Had the pilots set the flaps correctly, the plane would have cleared the light pole by 400 to 600 feet:
The cockpit recording revealed that the flight crew neither called for nor accomplished the TAXI checklist.
It could not be determined conclusively why the first officer did not lower the flaps. The possibility existed that after receiving the runway change, the first officer delayed lowering the flaps, perhaps anticipating a different flap setting due to the runway change.
Immediately after the runway change message, he had to verify runway 3C use with the takeoff performance chart. This change in takeoff routine could be the reason the TAXI checklist was forgone.
The only survivor of the crash was 4-year-old Cecilia Cichan who was on her way home to Phoenix with her parents and older brother. She was found by a first-year Romulus firefighter who stays in contact with her to this day. While she suffered severe injuries, Cichan survived the crash and currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and baby. She said in her only interview, featured in the CNN documentary Sole Survivor, that she thinks about the accident every day. She even has a tattoo of a MD-82 on her wrist and says she has no fear of flying, WDIV reports. In fact, she’s an avid traveler.
In the wake of the crash the grieving families were also a catalyst for change. Northwest released the passenger list almost immediately, and families were overwhelmed by press and personal injury lawyers banging down their doors. Due to how the crash was handled, new legislation was passed not only to ensure flight checklists are more closely followed, but now attorneys must wait a certain amount of time before approaching families.
Northwest continues to keep flight number 255 in retirement in the decades since the crash.