Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac (Movie review)

F/O Pettit and Capt. Wheaton (Bruce Wright and James Whitmore Jr.)

As part of my series of reviews on movies based on true air disasters, this is Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac, also known as Florida Flight 90 or simply Flight No. 90, a movie about the crash of an Air Florida jet near the 14th Street Bridge near Washington National Airport on January 13, 1982

Plot summary

The first scenes of the movie portray the routine for some of the passengers of Air Florida flight 90. Priscilla Tirado (Dinah Manoff), her husband Jose (Richard Beauchamp) and her baby prepare to leave the cold weather of the Washington suburbs for a new life in sunny Tampa. Some businessmen kiss their families goodbye and prepare to go on their respective business trips. Joe Stiley (Stephen Macht) and his secretary Patricia “Nikki” Felch (Jeanetta Arnette) change their plans. Due to the snow, instead of making a business trip to Alabama, they’ll fly to Tampa first.

Meanwhile, preparations are made on N62AF, a Air Florida Boeing 737-222, for a scheduled Miami-Washington flight. The five crew members on board are Senior Flight Attendant Donna Adams (Kate Vernon), Flight Attendant Marilyn Nichols (Jamie Rose), who just found out she is pregnant and seems to be friends with Donna, Flight Attendant Kelly Duncan (Kathleen Wilhoite), who appears to be the youngest among the cabin crew, Captain Larry Wheaton (James Whitmore Jr.) and First Officer Roger Pettit (Bruce Wright).  N62AF is airborne at 11 AM, after a takeoff roll of less than 30 seconds.

F/As Marilyn Nichols and Donna Adams (Jamie Rose and Kate Vernon)

A couple of hours later, it approaches Washington National Airport. After a bumpy approach which surprises the flight attendants, the aircraft makes a hard landing at around 1:30PM. The weather at Washington is at its worst. Marilyn and Donna wonder what’s next. “We’re in. The question is… Will we be able to get out?”, asks Donna. Nearly all passengers are already waiting in the departure lounge for flight 90. The plane is scheduled to depart at 2:15PM.

The passengers start boarding at 2 PM. One complains about bad weather, exclaiming himself “A window seat! I finally got me a window seat, a window you can’t see though!”. The snow storm is at its worst. Ground staff de-ices the wings of the B737,  when suddenly, the Captain asks them to stop, as the airport will close for an hour for snow ploughing. At about 3PM, the airport reopens and de-icing resumes for about 10 minutes.

Flight 90 leaves the gate at 3:23PM and is sixteenth in priority for take-off, right behind a New York Air DC-9. Joe Stiley asks Flight Attendant Marilyn Nichols why the pilots don’t check visually for ice build-up on the wings and engines. “The anti-ice system should take care of that. I’m sure the captain has taken the necessary precautions”, responds Marilyn. Surprisingly, during the after engine start checklist, the crew checks that the “Anti-Ice Engine” switch is at “Off”. This is the first of a series of errors that will lead to the crash.

At 3:59PM, 50 minutes after de-icing, flight 90 is cleared to take-off from runway 36. Such a departure requires a left turn over the Potomac River immediately after liftoff, or else the plane will overfly restricted air space. The last transmission from National Tower to flight 90 is: “No delay on departure if you will. Traffic’s two and a half [miles] out for the runway”. The crew applies take-off thrust, or so they think.

Joe Stiley (Richard Macht) notices something’s wrong

The engine probes are covered with ice and snow and indicate wrong read-outs. In fact, they indicate full take-off thrust is applied, although the throttles show otherwise. After 10, then 20 seconds, the plane continues to roll and slowly reaching rotation speed. The passengers notice that this is a particularly lengthy take-off. First Officer Pettit has controls, and looking at the two EPR gauges of the engines, asks the Captain if everything is fine. Wheaton is annoyed and responds that the readings are accurate, but Pettit is still unsure.

30 seconds: the plane continues to roll down the runway. The First Officer says he’s still unsure about the readouts. Already delayed and under pressure, the Captain responds calls out take-off speeds. The plane reaches V1 and rotates 45 seconds into the take-off. Passengers and flight attendants let out a sigh of relief as the nose of the plane raises.

Then, the stickshaker warning activates and the cabin shudders. The overhead compartments pop open, luggage falls on the ground and seat backs vibrate. Some passengers and Flight Attendant Kelly Duncan are so concerned that they assume the brace position. The final words of First Officer Pettit are: “Larry, we’re going down!”, to which Larry Wheaton responds “I know it.”

Right then, flight 90 hits the southern span of the 14th Street Bridge (Rochambeau Bridge), collides with three cars (killing four people on the ground), plunges into the icy waters and disappears. The rest of the movie portrays rescue efforts of the U.S. Police Park and shows Lenny Skutnick and Roger Olian, two bystanders, who help survivors from drowning. In the end, only four passengers and one crew member survive the accident. The scenes are very realistic and even show some actual footage from that day.

F/A Marilyn Nichols (Jamie Rose)

In fact, a sixth person survived the accident: Arland Williams. He was repeatedly given a rope to climb into a rescue helicopter, but each time, he passed it to other survivors. When there was no one left but him, rescuers could no longer see him. In memory of his heroic act, the Rochambeau Bridge is now known as the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.

The five survivors are Priscilla Tirado (who lost her husband and baby in the crash), Joe Stiley, Patricia Felch, Burt Hamilton and Kelly Duncan.

Appreciation

This movie is just excellent. The acting is very good. The movie is thrilling. The producers made a nearly perfect job re-creating the event. Too bad the lack of special effects at the time made a scene of the B737 hitting the bridge impossible. It’s the only flaw I see right now.

I give this movie 9.5 out of 10.
This is definitely one of the best in its category. Although not much crash but mostly humanitarian help, the movie made a near perfect reenactment of the event.

Things to notice

Here are the goofs and trivia about Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac.

Priscilla and Jose Tirado (Dinah Manoff and Richard Beauchamp)

  • The Boeing 737 on the ground in Miami shows a registration of N81AF (when the real one N62AF).
  • Shortly before Joe Stiley asks Flight Attendant Marilyn Nichols about the anti-ice system (see right), a man wearing a navy vest is sitting in the right side aisle seat, behind Joe. On the next shot, the man is already standing and stowing his coat in the overhead compartment.
  • For dramatic purposes, the fatal take-off scene lasts much longer than real-time.
  • In the movie, only those who assumed the bracing position prior to the crash survived, except for Priscilla Tirado.
  • The scene where the plane hits the water was edited from the 1969 movie Lost Flight, starring Lloyd Bridges.

The aircraft

Air Florida flight 90 is a Boeing 737-222 registered as N62AF and flying a DCA-TPA-FLL route (Washington National – Tampa – Fort Lauderdale). Its radio callsign is “Palm 90”.

Movie links

Specifications

U.S.A. 1984, Produced by Finnegan Pinchuk. Directed by Robert Michael Lewis. Starring Jeanetta Arnette, Barry Corbin, Stephen Macht, Richard Masur, Donnelly Rhodes, Jamie Rose. Rated PG. Also known as Flight 90, la catastrophe du Potomac (French), Katastrophe auf dem Potomac – Absturz in die eisigen Fluten (German).

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