It’s been 35 years since Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed onto I-94, killing all but one passenger.
The aircraft took off from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, and was airborne for all of 14 seconds before the crash along Middlebelt Road and I-94. Flight 255 is the seventh deadliest plane crash in United States history, and is the deadliest aviation disaster to have a sole survivor.
Here is a look back at this Southeast Michigan tragedy.
Captain John R. Maus, a 57-year-old from Las Vegas, and First Officer David J. Dodds, a 35-year-old from Galena, Illinois, picked up their aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, that had just finished a leg with stops in Minneapolis and Saginaw, and prepared for their flight to Phoenix. About ten minutes before the flight was due to depart the gate, a company transportation agent brought the flight release package to the airplane.
The takeoff performance data that was in the flight crew’s package was based on using either runway 21L or 21R. However, the flight had been instructed by ground control to taxi to runway 3C.
Runway 3C was the shortest of the three available runways. Captain Maus asked his first officer to verify that they could use runway 3C for takeoff. First Officer Dodds had to refer to the company’s Runway Takeoff Weight Chart Manual.
Their takeoff weight had to be below the allowable limits for runway 3C. The chart showed that if the flaps were set to 11 degrees, the maximum allowable takeoff weights for runway 3C was 147,500 pounds. The final takeoff weight for Flight 255′s airplane was 144,047. Basically, all of this technical mumbo jumbo just means that as long as the pilots set their flaps to 11 degrees, their plane would safely get off the ground even with their high takeoff weight and short runway.
While the plane was taxiing, the pilots got a little lost on their way to the runway. After missing a turn, the pilots contacted ground control who then redirected them back to runway 3C. At 8:44 p.m., Flight 255 was cleared for takeoff.
The plane crash
Recordings in the cockpit indicate that the engine power began increasing immediately after the all-clear for takeoff. However, the recording also revealed that the flight crew had trouble engaging the autothrottle system at first, but did engage the system moments later. First Officer Dodds called “rotate” at 8:45 and a second later, the stall warning stick shaker activated and continued operating until the recording ended.
According to the crash report, all of these issues in the takeoff ultimately contributed to the overall system failure. The autothrottle system failing to engage was the first red flag, with the stall warning being the second.
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.
🔒 From the Vault: News coverage from crash of Northwest Flight 255 in 1987
Why did the plane crash?
Following the crash, investigators started to attempt to gain an understanding of how Flight 255 crashed. Investigators had to exhaust every option to determine the cause of the crash. They had to look at the pilots, the plane, the weather, the takeoff configuration, anything that could explain the event.
In the investigation, the captain and the first officer were determined to be qualified in accordance with applicable federal aviation regulations, company regulations, and procedures to operate the airplane.
According to the accident report, the flight crew’s training records did not reveal anything abnormal. An investigation of their personal background and actions during the days before the accident also turned up normal.
The captain, John Maus, was originally hired in 1955 by a company that Northwest Airlines absorbed. He was employed for 31 years and was certified to fly several different types of planes. Interviews with first officers and other captains who had flown with him described him as a competent and capable pilot. They said he always used the airplane checklist, one first officer stated that he was a “by-the-book pilot who would not tolerate any deviation from standard procedure.”
The 35-year-old first officer, David Dodds, was hired in 1979. Aside from one training report during his early probationary period, captains that flew with him would describe his performance as average or above. He was called “easy to work with,” “good in all respects,” and “very personable.” His ability and performance were described in favorable terms.
Maintenance records showed that there was no evidence of any preexisting malfunctions or failures of any airplane structures or systems which would have contributed to the crash. There was a possible failure of the takeoff warning system to provide aural warning for an improper takeoff configuration.
After passengers disembarked the flight from Saginaw, a Northwest mechanic entered the cockpit to review the airplane and cabin maintenance logbooks prior to Captain Maus and First Officer Dodds taking over. The mechanic noted that there was no record of any maintenance being done on the airplane while it was at DTW.
Thirty minutes before the accident, other pilots reported wind shear alerts near Detroit Metro. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a wind shear is a change in wind speed and/or direction over a short distance.
Flight 255′s stall warning stick shaker had activated immediately after liftoff, according to the accident report. After it had activated, the plane failed to either match or approach its predicted climb profile. This evidence suggested that the aircraft had encountered a wind shear that decreased its performance capability. Because of this, the Safety Board first sought to determine if the plane had encountered a wind shear, it could be the reason the plane went down.
If an airplane encounters a significant wind shear during takeoff, changes in airspeed and climbing angles will appear on the plane’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR). However, examinations of flight 255′s Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and FDR showed that the airplane had not encountered a decreasing headwind type of wind shear. The FDR data showed that, at liftoff, the plane’s airspeed was about 169 KIAS (the airplane equivalent of MPH or KPH) and that instead of decelerating over the 14 seconds of the flight like an airplane that hit a wind shear would, the plane accelerated to about 184 KIAS and climbed almost 50 feet.
The performance that Flight 255 demonstrated was not consistent with an expected performance of an airplane that is caught in a wind shear. The Safety Board concluded that the airplane had not encountered a wind shear and directed its investigation elsewhere.
Take off and the checklists
It was now time to point the investigation towards the actual takeoff. The plane’s takeoff configuration, the pre-takeoff checklists, and the decisions leading up to the plane leaving the ground. The Safety Board had to exhaust all possible causes.
The last-minute change to the flight’s runway was a decision based on the tower supervisor’s judgment that the wind direction was changing from southwest to northwest. Following the investigation, the Safety Board concluded that the supervisor’s decision was reasonable.
If it wasn’t the pilots themselves, the aircraft, or the weather, it had to be the takeoff configuration.
The Safety Board determined through an airplane performance study that Flight 255 was not configured properly for takeoff. Both engines were operating at or above takeoff power, according to the accident report. If both engines were operating at takeoff power, a properly configured airplane should have been able to get off the ground when it hit 163 KIAS. In Flight 255′s case, it did not lift off until it was accelerating at 169 KIAS.
Before any flight, a captain and their first officer will use their checklists to ensure the plane’s configuration is proper for a safe takeoff. Northwest Airlines held a very strong position on pre-flight checklists. Their Airplane Flying Handbook stated that “good cockpit management requires consistent checklist usage. Proper use of checklist is reliable, and fosters predictable and standardized crewmember interaction.”
The handbook goes on to say, “checklist items may be performed without direct reference to the checklist, however, all checklist items will subsequently be read aloud in sequence while visually checking the items to assure completion. Upon completion of an individual checklist, the pilot completing the checklist will state ‘(CHECKLIST NAME) CHECKLIST COMPLETE’.”
Something important to keep in mind, on December 15, 1986, an FAA-approved checklist change was made, removing “FLAPS” from the “BEFORE TAKEOFF” checklist, and moving it to the “TAXI” checklist.
As mentioned previously, “basically, all of this technical mumbo jumbo just means that as long as the pilots set their flaps to 11 degrees, their plane would safely get off the ground even with their high takeoff weight and short runway.”
The Safety Board’s performance study examined the climb profiles and the plane’s ability to clear obstacles beyond the end of runway 3C. It was determined that the only circumstance that the plane would have been in dangerous proximity to obstacles at the end of the runway, was if the flaps and slats were completely retracted in its takeoff configuration. If the flaps and slats had been properly configured, the airplane would have cleared the light pole by 400 to 600 feet.
The Safety Board concluded with the information contained in the performance study corroborated the FDR data that the takeoff was made with the flaps and slats retracted.
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.
Victims of the crash
The Washington Post compiled a list of victims of the crash using information from the Wayne County medical examiner’s office as well as the victim’s relatives:
|Capt. John R. Maus, 57, Las Vegas||First Officer David J. Dodds, 35, Galena, Ill.||Flight attendant Michael L. Kahle, 34, LeSueur, Minn.||Flight attendant Roberta E. Rademacher, 35, Eagan, Minn.|
|Flight attendant Bruce R. Elfering, 23, Eagan||Flight attendant Pamela D. Sparks-Shaffer, 36, Chandler, Ariz.|
A black granite memorial was built in 1994 to commemorate the victims. It sits at the top of a hill at Middlebelt Road and I-94.
The victims of the crash included NBA player Nick Vanos, seven people from Orange County, California and a four-month old baby from Arizona. More than 30 of the passengers were under 25.
|William A. Acker, 34, Phoenix||George Amabile, Phoenix||Jamie Amabile, Phoenix||Mildred Avedisian, 52, Tucson|
|Anthony Bagnato, 50, Scottsdale, Ariz.||Jan Bagnato, 50, Scottsdale||Tom Barberio, 24, Lansing, Mich.||Donald W. Beck, Phoenix|
|Kenneth A. Bell, 28, Canton, Mich.||William M. Best, 36, Phoenix||Kathryn Best, 32, Phoenix||William Best Jr., 5, Phoenix|
|Hillary Best, 3, Phoenix||Katelyn Best, 4 months, Phoenix||Burke Bird, 32, Phoenix||Soumitra Biswas, 30, Morristown, N.J.|
|William C. Blakely, 41, Phoenix||Herbert Brantley, 26, Phoenix||Donald Briggs, 43, Scottsdale||Matthew Briggs, 13, Scottsdale|
|Megan Briggs, 8, Scottsdale||Sharon Briggs, 42, Scottsdale||Steve Brosnan, 27, Chandler||Harry Brown, Canton, Mich.|
|Timothy L. Buck, 28, Tucson||Ryan Buck, 5, Tucson||James R. Burnett, 64, Okemos, Mich.||Rhett Taylor Bushong, 19, Mission Viejo, Calif.|
|Donald Byelich, 46, Chandler||Susan Byelich, 48, Chandler||Michael Byelich, 16, Chandler||Bradley Byelich, 14, Chandler|
|John Carter, Phoenix||Michael Cichan, 32, Tempe, Ariz.||Paula Cichan, 33, Tempe||David Cichan, 6, Tempe|
|Susie Cody, Tempe||Jennifer Cody, 15, Tempe||Carolyn Cohen, 25, Phoenix||Capt. Jerome D. Cook, 48, Phoenix, off-duty Northwest employe|
|J. Cathie Corona, 44, St. Clair Shores, Mich.||Judy Davis, 50, Tempe||Kurt Dobronski, 28, Scottsdale||Julie Donzalski, 25, Phoenix|
|Joann Downs, 33, Phoenix||Lewis Dresch, 45, Sterling Heights, Mich.||Charles Englert, 27, Tucson||Karen Englert, 28, Tucson|
|Charles Englert Jr., 14 months, Tucson||Gregg Files, 35, Chandler||Peter Frank||Robert Gaines, Rochester Hills, Mich.|
|Sande Garriott, Phoenix||Elizabeth Geiger, 7, Phoenix||Emily Geiger, 13, Phoenix||Robert Geiger, 39, Phoenix|
|Lauren Geiger, Gilbert, Ariz.||Lisa Geiger, Gilbert||Ronald Geiger, Gilbert||Valerie Geiger, Gilbert|
|Judy Glazer, Phoenix||Joshua Glazer, Phoenix||Patrick Gleason, 49, Utica, Mich.||Murray H. Goldstein, 43, Cranford, N.J.|
|Toby Greene, 40, Tucson||Kitty Greene, 11, Tucson||Linda Grigg, 40, Phoenix||Kail Grigg, 39, Phoenix|
|Richard Allen Gruici, Phoenix||Glenn Haas, 31, Phoenix||Douglas A. Hagler, 31, Burton, Mich.||Craig Hale, 30, Peoria, Ariz.|
|Kimberly Hale, 30, Peoria||Mary Henry, Scottsdale||Travis Henry, Scottsdale||H. Scott Hines, 28, Phoenix|
|Army Lt. Christine Hoffman, 23, El Paso||Craig Hoffman, 27, Phoenix||Randy Hoffman, 24, Prescott, Ariz.||Cynthia Horton, 37, Phoenix|
|Kevin Insalaco, 27, Niagara Falls, N.Y.||Marshall Johnson, 31, Phoenix||Barbara Karow, 39, Phoenix||Justin Keener, 12, Scottsdale|
|Gary Kimmel, 34, Fenton, Mich.||Donald Klaft, Phoenix||Lisa Klaft, Phoenix||Mary Jane Kmack, 62, Clarence, N.Y.|
|Hollins O. Langton, 26, Phoenix||Janine Martin, 28, Tempe||Ernest John Mathews, 38, Sterling Heights, Mich.||Eric Mazade, 30, Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.|
|Matthew McLaughlin, 29, Mesa, Ariz.||Daniel Mickelson, 18, Scottsdale||Wayne Mickelson, Scottsdale||Terry J. Misener, 40, Tucson|
|Suzanne Morris, 35, Federal Way, Wash., off-duty Northwest flight attendant||William Kirk Murdy, 22, Jackson, Mich.||Arlene Nelson, Detroit||Debra O’Connell, 24, Phoenix|
|Michael M. Peacock, 39, Phoenix||Richard Pfister, Phoenix||DeAnna Presti, 15, Mesa||Dan Pursley, 28, Phoenix|
|Karen Pursley, 26, Phoenix||Hidi Ratliff, 16, Santa Ana, Calif.||Virginia Robinson, 45, Fountain Valley, Calif.||Keith Rogers, Tempe|
|Capt. Melvin C. Roundy, 53, Mesa, off-duty Northwest employee||John J. Ross, Phoenix||Louis Scarseletta, 30, Lockport, N.Y.||Carl A. Scherer, 58, Clarence Center, N.Y.|
|Mary Scott, Ahwatukee, Ariz.||Sam Scott, 9, Ahwatukee||Patricia A. Shero, 53, Davison, Mich.||Larry Sills, Paradise Valley, Ariz.|
|Thomas L. Spark, 32, Lockport, N.Y.||Stuart L. Stoner, Bloomfield, Mich.||Jay Strausbaugh, 29, Sterling Heights, Mich.||Michael Sullivan, 27, Phoenix|
|Joanne Surowitz, 18, Tustin, Calif.||Pat Tallarico, 24, Lansing, Mich.||M. Jane Tanfield, Tempe||Jeanna Tawzer, Scottsdale|
|Doug Thompson, Scottsdale||Nell Thompson, Scottsdale||Erica Thomsen, 61, Lake Havasu City, Ariz.||Laura Thorell, 28, Glendale, Ariz.|
|Larry Thorell, Glendale||Krista Thorell, 1, Glendale||Lisa Tombasco, Laguna Hills, Calif.||Rafael Tombasco, Laguna Hills|
|James Tuck, 44, Detroit||Benjamin Daniel Turner, 18, Mesa||Suzanne Kolarick Underwood, Tempe||Nick Vanos, 24, of San Mateo, Calif.|
|Frank Vlazny, 35, Northville, Mich.||Dorian Wallington, Chandler||Dr. Charles Walton, Mesa||Leonard C. Weite, 48, Phoenix|
|William Wischerath, 33, Liverpool, N.Y.||Lowell Wormley, 49, Delran, N.J.||Vanessa Young, North Phoenix||Michael G. Zanger, 23, Phoenix|
|Doris Zell, 36, Glendale||Richard Zell, 44, Glendale||Phyllis A. Zigler, 32, Gasport, N.Y. ON THE GROUND||Eddie Galloway, Detroit|
|S. Schweitzer, Dearborn Heights, Mich.|
As of 2014, Northwest, now owned by Delta, continues the retirement of 255 as a flight number.