“Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac” and Remembering Air Florida Flight 90

Today (13 January) is the anniversary of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, so it seems appropriate that, in the next of my posts about movies which I studied for my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, I am writing about Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac (Robert Michael Lewis, 1984). The following is a summary for the movie on IMDb about the movie:

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashes into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., resulting in 78 fatalities.


As you will gather from this summary and my opening comments, this movie is based on the events surrounding an actual plane crash. A summary of what happened can be found on Wikipedia. The key points are the plane was a scheduled U.S. domestic passenger flight operated by Air Florida from Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) to Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport with an intermediate stopover at Tampa International Airport. On January 13, 1982, the Boeing 737-222 registered as N62AF crashed into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River. Striking the bridge, which carries Interstate 395 between Washington, D.C. and Arlington County, Virginia, it hit seven occupied vehicles and destroyed 97 feet (30 m) of guard rail before plunging through the ice into the Potomac River. The aircraft was carrying 74 passengers and five crew members. Only four passengers and one crew member (a flight attendant) were rescued from the crash and survived. Another passenger, Arland D. Williams, Jr., assisted in the rescue of the survivors but drowned before he could be rescued. Four motorists on the bridge were killed. The survivors were rescued from the icy river by civilians and professionals. President Ronald Reagan commended these acts during his State of the Union speech a few days later. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the cause of the accident was pilot error. The pilots failed to switch on the engines’ internal ice protection systems, used reverse thrust in a snowstorm prior to takeoff, tried to use the jet exhaust of a plane in front of them to melt their ice, and failed to abort the takeoff even after detecting a power problem while taxiing and seeing ice and snow buildup on the wings.

Following on from my post yesterday about Crash: The Mystery of Flight 1501, while the NTSB concluded that the cause was pilot error, this is an example where there seems to be an overly simplistic conclusion. The cause was not pilot error alone. There could have been on-board mechanisms to better warn of the build up of ice, the airport could have insisted that additional checks were done in the bad weather, the airport could have used its own staff to ensure that the appropriate checks had been done, the plane could have been fully de-iced on the way to the runway (as I experienced on a flight I had out of Helsinki back in 2012 – see the image below), and so on.

Wings of the Finnair plane I was on getting de-iced at Helsinki Airport in January 2012 before flying to Kansai International Airport, Japan

In terms of the movie Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac, one has to remember that this was made prior to the wealth of TV documentary series that are now made about plane crashes – such as Mayday/Air Crash Investigation, Aircrash Confidential, and others (some of which I have appeared in due to my research about the JL123 crash) and so was set out in a way which we don’t often see now in movies relating to plane crashes. Although done as a dramatization, it has a slight documentary feel to it in that it is clearly trying to show what caused to the accident itself (keep in mind the caveats above the cause of accidents).

Compared to some of the TV documentary series that have become so popular, I suspect that Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac had a rather limited budget and this probably accounts for some of the errors (e.g. in filming a plane – supposedly the Flight 90 plane itself – the incorrect plane registration is shown). Having said that, even bigger budgets don’t mean that there are no errors. I still get annoyed with the movie version of Shizumanu Taiyo when seeing the clips of the plane taking off – having spent so much money on a computer generated image to show the plane, you would have thought that they would have remembered to include the windows for the cockpit.

Flight 123 as shown in Shizumanu Taiyo (2009) with the cockpit windows missing

As with Climber’s High (2005) in particular, Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac uses some actual footage to add to the believability (or ‘pillars of truth‘ as I refer to them in my article) of the movie. Although it has clearly aged, it is, in many ways, just as good to watch as the documentaries that have followed subsequently.

In relation to my research about public transportation accident memorials, as I discuss in the article, I found that there were many cases in the USA (unlike in Europe and even more so in Japan) where there appears to be no memorial at all (see also my discussion about those accidents where there are memorials – such as AA Flight 587 as TWA Flight 800). So far I have not come across anything that suggests that there is a memorial to Air Florida Flight 90.

In terms of the revised list of conventions that I developed as part of my article “Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?“, Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac has only 11 out of the 17, further highlighting the fact that there are many disaster movies which don’t appear to contain a large number of conventions for one reason or another.

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