Northwest Airlines Flight 255
August 16, 1987
is in a Name?
Northwest Airlines was founded in 1926 by
Colonel Lewis H. Brittin,an engineer working for the St. Paul Association,
a business and civic organization. He had assembled a group of investors
from Detroit and St. Paul, and incorporated the venture under the name
"Northwest Airways". Like many other early airline ventures, Northwest's early
focus was not in hauling passengers for hire, but in flying the airmail under
contract for the United States Post Office Department. The fledgling airline
started carrying the mail on October 1st, 1926, at the contract rate of $2.75
per pound along the contract mail route (CAM 9) between Minneapolis and Chicago,
using open cockpit biplanes such as the Curtiss Oriole.
The company began flying passengers in 1927,
going international the following year with service to Winnipeg, Canada. The
airline continued to expand, with a particular focus on east Asian destinations
after World War II, going so far as to re-brand itself as "Northwest Orient
Airlines", although the legal name of the company remained Northwest. In
October of 1986, Northwest purchased its competitor, Minneapolis-St. Paul-based
Republic Airlines and adopted its three-hub network centered around
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, and Memphis. Northwest dropped the word 'Orient'
from its brand name after the merger.An Awkward Acquisition...
A photo of MD-82 tail number N312RC,
painted in Northwest livery, taken before the crash
Northwest Airlines' aircraft fleet, before
the merger, consisted of only Boeing airplanes and McDonnell Douglas DC-10s.
With the merger, Northwest acquired a fleet of 134 DC-9s (several
of the MD-80 series variants), 3 Boeing 727s, and 6 Boeing 757s from the assets
of Republic. Among the DC-9s, was a MD-82, tail number N312RC. It
had been completed by McDonnell Douglas on October 15th, 1981, and delivered to
Republic Airlines on December 8th, 1982.
The MD-80 (also called the DC-9-80) series is
a mid-size, medium-range airliner that was introduced in 1980. The design was
the next generation of the DC-9, with a longer fuselage and two rear
fuselage-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8D 200-series turbofan engines, small, highly
efficient wings, and a T-tail design. The MD-82 (also known as
a DC-9-82) was a further variant, featuring stronger engines and a greater
range than a standard MD-80.
Since the pre-merger Northwest Orient
Airlines did not operate DC-9 type airplanes, the former DC-9 training
staff at Republic Airlines, except for some procedural changes in chain-of-command structure and
reporting, remained intact throughout the changeover.
Most of the flight crewmembers from Republic also stayed on after the merger.
With few pilots at Northwest trained to fly DC-9s, MD-80s, and the like, the former
Republic pilots and staff had a fairly secure position in the new organization.
|An FAA layout diagram of
Detroit-Metro in 1987
The Buckle of the "Rust Belt"...
Originally opened as a small regional airport in 1930, and
located about about 15 miles south of downtown Detroit, in the suburb of
Romulus, Michigan, the Detroit Metropolitan - Wayne County Airport was the
United States 12th busiest airport, handling 15 million passengers in 1986.
Lying at a field elevation of 639 feet above sea level,
"Detroit-Metro" became the major hub for Republic Airlines, operating out of the
James M. Davey terminal building, in
1984, and was in a state of growth, having recently begun non-stop flights to
Tokyo, and was preparing for the construction of a new cross-wind runway.
However, on March 4th of 1987, a CASA 212-200 "Aviocar", tail
number N160FB and operating as Northwest Airlink Flight 2268, crashed near
Concourse F of the Davey terminal building. Killing 9 of the 19 aboard the
plane, and injuring 10 on the ground, including 2 in a Sky Chef catering truck,
the plane crashed as a result of the captain's inability to control the airplane
in an attempt to recover from an asymmetric power condition at low speed.
Fire-fighting and rescue crews from the Detroit-Metro airport
fire department responded to the blaze. It would not compare, however, to
the accident awaiting them five months later.
Northwest Flight 255 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight
of a MD-82, that day being N312RC,
between Saginaw and Santa Ana, California, with en route stops at Detroit and
Phoenix, Arizona. At about 6:53 PM, on Sunday, August 16th, 1987, Flight
255 departed Saginaw and, at 7:42 PM, arrived at its terminal gate at the
About 15 minutes before the flight was due to depart the gate, a
company transportation agent brought the flight release package to the airplane.
He was met by the first officer who told him that the captain was not on board.
The first officer inspected the package which contained the dispatch documents,
signed the release, and returned the signed copy to the agent. As the agent left
the airplane, he met the captain who had been conducting a walk-around
inspection of the airplane and showed him the signed copy of the flight release.
The captain studied the release, told the agent that it was all right, and
At 8:32 PM, the aircraft pushed back from its
gate, D-15, and a minute later started its engines, and taxied for takeoff on
Runway 3C, a 8,500 feet long, 200 feet wide, strip of concrete and grooved
asphalt, following a magnetic heading was 33.5”. Having been advised of
the possibility of low level wind shear, a potentially deadly weather
phenomenon, causing a sudden change in wind's speed of 15 knots, and/or a
change in direction of 30 degrees or more, a thunderstorm had
also been reported about 18 miles away from the airport, and a light drizzle of
rain falling at the airport.
On the Roll...
At 8:44 PM, Northwest 255 was cleared for takeoff. The
flight crew advanced the throttles, began their takeoff roll, and rotated
skyward at exactly 8:45 PM. Twenty
seconds later, the unthinkable would happen.
According to witnesses, Flight 255 began its
takeoff rotation about 1,200 to 1,500 feet from the end of the runway, very late
in the roll, and lifted
off near the end of the runway. After liftoff, the wings of the airplane rolled
to the left and the right about 35 degrees in each direction.
The airplane's left wing collided
with a light pole to the northeast of the runway, ripping away a 15-foot long
section of the wingtip. Continuing forward, the airplane struck
other light poles, the roof of the Avis Rental Car building, and then slammed
into the ground.
Propelled forward by its sheer mass and
inertia, the fuselage, burning from the ignition of 6,000 gallons of Jet-A
liquid fuel, continued to
slide along a path aligned its the takeoff
runway. The airplane, shattered from the impact, broke up as it slid across the ground,
leaving flaming gas and burning debris in its wake.
Jim Zagan, a resident near the airport and with his face still
red from exposure to the intense heat, told newspaper reporters shortly after
the crash, "I started to run toward the fire,
then there was a huge whoosh and a red fireball coming toward me. I couldn't
keep going because of the heat and fire," He then added,
"Middlebelt Road was on fire from the fuel. Seven or eight streams of fuel, on
fire were running down the road. It was unbelievable."
|Investigators examine a piece of
the MD-82s fuselage
||A large section of
fuselage, showing the plane's exterior, lies burned on the
the debris field on Middlebelt Road
||In a downpour, rescue workers comb the
In The Wake of Disaster...
Of the persons aboard Flight 255, 148
passengers and 6 crewmembers were killed. Of note, one of the passengers
on the flight was Nicolaas "Nick" Vanos, a center for the Phoenix Suns
basketball team for two seasons. Drafted by the Suns out of Santa
Clara University in 1985, Vanos was a 7-foot-2-inch tall, 260-pound
with great potential, and the team's hope for the years ahead. He had
spent four days in Plymouth, Michigan,
vacationing with a friend.
On the ground, two persons driving travelling northbound on Middlebelt Road were killed, one person was injured seriously, and
four persons suffered minor injuries.
for a list of those killed in the crash of Northwest Flight #255
Three occupied vehicles on a road adjacent to the airport and
numerous vacant vehicles in a rental car parking lot along the airplane’s path
were destroyed by impact forces and fire.
Detroit Edison stated that between 1,500 and 2,000 homes and businesses
were without electricity in the area near the airport. State police closed
eastbound Interstate 94 and Interstate 275 near the airport following the crash.
FBI agents were sent to the scene based on a
report that there might have been an explosion before the crash. However,
Joseph Jackson, the assistant agent in charge of the FBI's Michigan's
operations, described the agency's presence as routine and said "there's
absolutely no indication of anything other than an accident."
Investigators viewing the wreckage of the aircraft, were quickly drawn to the
flaps and slats, which were found retracted and not extended. Without their
deployment, an airplane would behave exactly as the DC-9 had. It might get off
the ground, but wouldn't climb significantly. An analysis of the plane's cockpit
voice recorder showed that the crew hadn't initiated the standard taxi
checklist. The first item on the list: extension of the flaps and slats.
Click here to hear the final
seconds of Flight 255's Cockpit Video Recorder.
Northwest Airlines had recently changed its procedures to eliminate
the flap setting from the pre-takeoff checklist, although it continued to be
part of the checklist conducted while taxiing. Prior to the merger,
Northwest had included the flap setting as part of its taxiing checklist, while
Republic had used the pre-takeoff checklist, according to FAA spokesman Fred
Farrar. FAA regulations require the setting to be included in only one of the
A Drop of Hope in a Sea of Despair...
A fire fighter for the Romulus Fire
Department, Dan Kish,
heard the sound of a muffled whimper in the strewn wreckage. He and his
fellow rookie firefighter, John Thiede, began to search to its source among a
field of yellow blankets, used to cover the deceased, when Thiede lifted up a
airplane seat, and spotted movement - the small arm of a little girl.
Amidst such terrible destruction, there was a survivor!
The pair called over Roy Brindamour, a
volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician who, as a day job,
worked for Northwest Airlines. He cut away the girl's seat belt and
quickly examined her. Some paramedics and rescue workers on the scene originally assumed she may have been traveling in
a vehicle rather than in the plane. An ambulance crew -staffed by paramedics Pam
Davidson & Tim Schroder - rushed over to help the
girl, taking her to Oakwood Annapolis Hospital in the nearby city of Wayne.
The young girl was
4-year-old traveling, in seat 8F, with her parents and older brother, on a return flight from
a visit to her grandparents in nearby Warminster. She had third-degree
burns over 30 percent of her body, suffered a broken leg, and experienced difficulty breathing.
"Her survival was due to being padded by her
mother, at least we assume it was her mother," said Pam Davidson, one of
the paramedics present when Cichan was found. "There was debris everywhere and there
was no way to determine if the wreckage was part of the plane or another vehicle."
However, in mid-December 1987, when files of the National
Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the accident became available, it
was revealed that the girl had been found still strapped in her seat 35 yards
away from the body of her mother and 6 to 8 feet away from any other bodies.
Early press accounts identify Donald Daughenbaugh, only 21 years old, and rookie
Romulus volunteer firefighter, as Cichan's rescuer.
But Daughenbaugh was not connected with the rescue of Cichan until a press
conference 3 days after the crash. The media confused accounts of the
rescue, and gave Daughenbaugh sole credit for locating and helping Cichan
receive treatment. The Romulus Fire Department elected not to miscredit
him, and simply included him as one of the rescuers. In March of 1991, Daughenbaugh
died suddenly in line of duty.
A Ticket to Ride...
A wide receiver
for the Detroit Lions football team, Pete Mandley, and his
wife Teresa, 7-year old son, DeJhown, and infant daughter Treazure , attended a
Lions' football practice that same day at Oakland University, and had
reservations on Flight 255. The Lions lost to Indianapolis the
previous Saturday night, in an exhibition at the Silverdome,
and Treazure had had a reaction to some medication. The decision to stay another day in Detroit,
instead of returning to their home in Arizona, saved their lives.
The day after the crash, at 3 PM, Teresa, DeJhown and Treazure boarded their
flight home -- on United Airlines -- but there was more distress awaiting them.
Teresa's mother, Fay White, had been rushed to a Mesa, Arizona, hospital with a
mild heart attack after hearing the initial news reports - she hadn't known they
Mandley was joined the Kansas City Chiefs in
1988, and retired from professional football, after 7 seasons, in 1990.
After the Smoke Settled...
The death toll from the crash made it the
nation's second worst in the nation's history at the time, surpassed only by the
crash of an American Airlines DC-10 on May 25, 1979, at Chicago's O'Hare
International Airport, killing 275 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board ruled the plane's crew
failed to set the wing flaps properly for takeoff. The board also said a cockpit
warning system failed to alert the crew to the problem.
After an 18-month long trial, and 16 days of deliberation, the
federal jury ruled that Northwest Airlines should bear 100 percent of the
responsibility for the crash, saying the flight crew's negligence
contributed to the crash. The jury also said Northwest was negligent in its
training and supervision of the crew. Northwest Airlines had contended
that the maker of the plane, McDonnell-Douglas, was responsible for errors in
design and construction of the craft.
Click here to read the ruling
regarding NWA# 255
In June of 1988, the Phoenix Suns
filed a suit in Federal court in Detroit against Northwest Airlines and the
McDonnell-Douglas Corporation, asserting that Nick Vanos, who was under a
long-term contract, was irreplaceable to the team, despite him averaging only
2.9 points in 57 games in the 1986-87 season. In 2007, Santa Clara
University retired his jersey & number, #32, in his memory.
Cecelia Cichia underwent four successful
skin-graft operations at the University of Michigan Medical Center, and was
released from the hospital in October of 1987. Due to media attention, she
received nearly 2,200 gifts, mostly stuffed animals, more than 30,000 cards and
over $150,000 in donations.
Her grandparents, Tony and Margaret Cichan,
asked that the mountain of gifts be sent to charities and hospitals in
Philadelphia, Phoenix and the Detroit area, because they were the hometowns of
their family members, and the Detroit area because of the hospitality and
generosity of residents there.
Cecelia would live with her mother's sister,
Rita Lumpkin, and Rita's husband,
in Birmingham, Alabama. In January of 1988, when her parents estate was
probated, the court file was sealed so, in the words of Judge John
Kirkendall of Washtenaw County, she would be allowed to ''grow without the glare
Author Rose Weite,
whose husband was killed in the crash, was forced to confront death head-on.
In an effort to cope with the loss, she wrote the book, After the Crash.
Her first-person account describes her struggle to come to terms with her
personal tragedy & to grow spiritually from it. The tome takes an honest,
and sometimes painful journey through the labyrinth of emotions that death
leaves in its wake. The result is not a morose, self-pitying diary but an
uplifting testimony to the resilience of the human spirit & the life-affirming
lessons that even death can teach.
In memory of the victims of the crash, a black
memorial stands, surrounded by Blue Spruce trees, near the Middlebelt Road &
Interstate 94 Overpass. On the memorial , a pair of etched doves with a
ribbon in its beak reads "Their spirit still lives on..." and has the names of
those who perished in the crash.
The remains of many of the 156
killed when unidentified (based on the
technology of the time). Their remains
were interred at the United Memorial Gardens,
near Plymouth, Michigan. Eleven caskets
were buried, and bronze markers were placed.
Nearby, a bronze statue of little girl swinging
in a swing set, and a flagpole, were placed, as
well as two memorial tablets - one commemorating
those lost in granite which reads:"Memory
Comes to Life - When we recall the date August
16,1987 and the air tragedy at Metropolitan
Airport seconds after takeoff, 156 persons were
ushered into another world. Four year old
Cichan received a most precious gift, Life.
Her name will be recorded in aviation history as
the sole survivor of flight 255.", and
another recognizing donors to Children's
Hospitals in bronze.
An online memorial to those lost resides at