Hank Winchester: It’s hard to believe it’s been 35 years since Flight 255 crashed on I-94

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.