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Rescue Over the Potomac

By Chris Henry, EAA Lifetime 41434, EAA Museum Programs Rep

  • Rescue Over the Potomac
    Photo credit: U.S. Parks Service.
  • Rescue Over the Potomac
    Photo credit: U.S. Parks Service.
  • Rescue Over the Potomac
    Photo credit of Airliners.net.

May 19, 2016 - January 13, 1982, started out as an ordinary day for State Park Police helicopter pilot Don Usher and his medic Melvin “Gene” Windsor. The Washington, D.C. area was getting hit by a giant snow storm. Conditions at nearby Washington National Airport had been getting worse all day, and at one point the airport closed completely and it wasn’t until noon that the airport re-opened. “It was snowing so hard that we were thinking that we would just go out of service for the day,” Usher recalled about the weather that day. “It normally would take me about 45 minutes to get to work on a normal day, but that day it took me more than an hour and a half. I knew it was going to take a long time to get in, so I left early to ensure I could get there on time.” Usher arrived at the base, named “The Eagles Nest” due to the call sign of their helicopters Eagle 1 and Eagle 2, around 1:30 p.m. “I just couldn’t see how we were going to fly. The visibility was down to 1/4-mile visibility with heavy snow and low ceilings. We started talking about shutting down and taking leave for the day.”

Meanwhile at National Airport, crews were fighting to keep the runway open. Ground crews worked tirelessly to get the aircraft loaded and pushed off of their gates. One of these aircraft was a Boeing 737-200, which made up Air Florida Flight 90. At around 3 p.m. they were given permission to push. As they were being pushed off of the gate, the tug lost traction. In an attempt to get clear of the gate, the crew used reverse thrust, which was warned against in Boeing operations bulletins. Due to the delays, there was a line of aircraft waiting to depart. It would be another 40 minutes before they would take off. The pilots decided to not deice again as it might cause another delay. They were finally given take off clearance at 3:59 p.m. Upon takeoff, the jet, carrying 74 passengers and five crew members, seemed to be in trouble. The crew was fighting to gain altitude. The instruments were reading the correct speeds, but the plane did not have the power to climb. The pilots added full power, but it was already too late. The aircraft struck the 14th Street Bridge and clipped several vehicles before plunging through the 4-inch-thick ice into the 29-degree water.  

At the Eagle’s Nest, Usher and the crew had plowed out the base and preflighted the helicopter for the day even though they did not anticipate flying. They found other work in the hangar to do and tried to warm up with some hot coffee. “We had a good relationship with National tower and approach and had flown several of their staff onboard the helicopter from time to time so that they could check out some of their approaches,” Usher said. At 4:12 he answered a ringing phone to get a surprise question which he initially thought might be a joke. The voice on the phone was one of the controllers asking if they were flying that afternoon. “I thought he was kidding around,” he said. “Then he told me that an aircraft had taken off and that they lost contact with it. They were hoping we could go take a look.” Usher checked the weather. It was 1/4-mile visibility in snow with a 200-foot obscured ceiling. Hardly a good day to go flying in a Bell Jet Ranger with no anti-ice systems.

“We decided we should take a look and see if we could make it out of there and take a look around for them,” he said. “Gene had to make another pass with his truck with the snow plow before we departed. Once in the air I knew we would have to stay low. National worked with keeping us low and we headed over to the departure end of the runway.” Once they got between the end of the runway and the Potomac the weather cleared up a bit and they could see shattered ice on the river. “It looked like someone threw a baseball through a window,” Usher said. “There was this hole with all of these cracks where it had shattered.” As they neared the area of the 14th Street Bridge, they could see some damage. “As we got closer I could see several cars were crushed and a large truck hauling bricks was tipped on its side and was leaning over on the guard rail of the bridge.” As they spotted some people on the banks, their initial thought was that this was a business jet that had crashed and that the people on the bank were the passengers who had gotten out of it. “We had no idea it was a 737,” Usher said. “We spotted some wreckage sticking up out of the ice. There were seven people out there on the ice.” What they had spotted was the tail of Air Florida Flight 90. Around the tail were four survivors. One more was in the aircraft tangled in cables and unable to get free. The last person they saw on the ice was a gentleman who was working to get to the survivors. It was Roger Olian. He had been yelling to them that they were not alone and that help was coming. His voice was the only sign of help they had until the sounds of Eagle 1’s rotors echoed up the river. 

The crew of the 737 had been trained for several different scenarios, but this was not one of them. They had nothing onboard for a rescue of this nature. They had to improvise to try to save the lives of the passengers clinging to the wreckage. “It was 29 degrees out there. They had been in the water for 20 minutes before we got there,” Usher said. “I knew we had to work fast as hypothermia would soon claim them. Technically they should have already been dead.” Windsor tied the rotor tie-down strap to the helicopter and threw it out as a life line to the victims. “Bert Hamilton was the first one we took over to the shore.” There was only one ambulance and a few fire fighters on the bank at that time. They cut down a tree to give Usher a better chance at getting the survivors in on the bank.

 “We didn’t realize that there were two film crews on hand filming us. They did not get the first recue on tape as they were both loading their cameras.” Usher and Windsor got the victims right on the shore line, and then a mix of military personnel, rescue crews, and civilians helped them from the shore. “We went back again to the wreckage and dropped the line on the gentleman who was still partially inside the fuselage of the aircraft,” Usher said. That was Arland D. Williams Jr. He was tangled in cables and could not get free. So he passed the line to flight attendant Kelly Duncan. “Kelly had been performing her duties until the end. She was there on the ice and found the only life preserver she could. She placed it on one of the other passengers rather than use it herself,” Usher said. They soon had Duncan safely delivered on to the shore. “I got on the loud speaker and asked if anyone had more ropes. Someone had a life preserver meant to be used in a swimming pool and tied that to another rotor strap.”

They prepared to make another run with their improvised rescue system. “We were doing the best we could with what we had,” Usher said. “No one was really prepared for this type of recue. No one could really do much with what they had.” As they went back out, they once again dropped the ring on Arland Williams in the plane. He once again handed the ring to another passenger. This time it was Joe Stiley who was wounded and also hanging on to Priscilla Tirado who was in shock from losing her husband and baby in the crash and could not see due to jet fuel in her eyes. “We decided to try to take three at once,” Usher said. “We knew we had to keep the speed of the rescues up so that they would not parish.” Stiley’s co-worker who had been sitting next to him, Nikki Felch, took the second line. As Eagle 1 brought the victims to shore, Felch and Tirado could not hang on. Felch was still a long way from shore. Despite his wounds, Stiley held Tirado under his broken arm. As they went through some of the thick ice to shore, he could no longer hang on to her and she slipped out. Stiley made it to shore safely and they went back out for Tirado. They dropped the ring right to her. She took hold of it and they began the short hop to the shore. About 20 feet from the safety of land, she could hang on no longer. “I looked out to the shore and I could see that no one was moving to save her,” Usher said. “I looked back down at her and saw that she had no fight left in her. She was going under. I asked Gene what he thought, but he couldn’t dive in because we had another rescue to do. If he dove in, we would not be able to save the others. Here we are just feet away and we are going to watch her drown.” There is a saying that a hero is someone that gets frustrated, tired, and cold long enough that they just spring in to action. That is exactly what must have happened to government worker Lenny Skutnik. He jumped into the freezing cold water and swam out to Tirado. Despite the cold, he was able to swim with her to the fire fighters on shore. With Tirado now safe, Usher and Windsor could focus on getting Felch out of the water. “We dropped the ring on her and she tried to grab on and couldn’t,” Usher said. “She looked up at us and just shook her head that she didn’t have the energy left.” The shock of the crash and the freezing water had taken its toll on Felch. Usher and Windsor came up with a plan to get as low as they could to get Felch out of the water.

“I brought it in on the deck. I put one skid right in the water next to her,” Usher said. “Gene replied to not go any lower as his boots were in the water. He had one arm holding him into the helicopter and with one arm he lifted Felch on to the skid. Then he used both arms to secure her on the skid and balanced himself out there. She was able to get a leg across his boot. That is how she came ashore.” Later Usher and Windsor were asked about this rescue and if Windsor had been strapped in to the helicopter. “The only thing securing him to that helicopter was his helmet mike cord. We just didn’t have anything like that,” Usher said. Once the others were safe, Eagle 1 returned for Arland Williams, the man trapped in the plane. The wreckage had shifted and he was gone. He was the only victim to die from drowning. The whole rescue took 10 minutes. 

“First responders made us a landing zone on the outbound lanes of the 14th Street Bridge,” Usher said. “We landed there after doing a few minutes of searching for other survivors. We thought that maybe someone would need to be flown out to the hospital. We landed and Gene jumped out to see what the status was.” Someone told him that there was a victim who had not been taken out yet. Windsor rushed to a nearby Metro bus to find Felch. The woman that just minutes ago he had pulled on to the skids. She was wrapped in blankets trying to warm up. They delivered her to the hospital once they knew there were no more survivors. 

During the NTSB investigation it was discovered that the flight crew had committed a chain of errors which played into the events leading up to the crash. Due to their inexperience of flying in winter operations, they had made several bad choices. First, they had opted to not get deiced again even though snow was visible on the wings. A passenger from another plane had recorded images of Flight 90 prior to takeoff. You can clearly see the plane is covered. It was also discovered on the recordings of the cockpit communication that during the checklist, they had left the engine anti-ice in the off position. The aircraft was not up to flying speed when they tried to take off. These were costly mistakes. Seventy-three people lost their lives onboard the aircraft along with four more on the bridge. 

The crew of Eagle 1 received Interior Department’s Valor Award as well as the Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal. The 14th Street Bridge where the crash occurred was renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge in honor of the man who continued to pass the safety lines to other passengers. Skutnik, the man who jumped into the cold water to save Tirado, was awarded the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal as well as the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal. He was also introduced to the joint session of the U.S. Congress during President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech later that month.

Efforts were also undertaken to try to ensure that the events did not happen again through improvements made to training procedures. Another improvement made after the Flight 90 crash was the development of a harness for use by rescue helicopters that would make future rescues easier. The images of the crash of Flight 90 prove one fact above all else. If it was not for Usher and Windsor, the course of fate for the five survivors would have been sealed. Because of the bravery of the crew of Eagle 1, they were able to live on. 

The new National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C is going to feature a restored Eagle 1 helicopter in the main lobby. The very one that Usher and Windsor crewed that day. It will inspire future heroes and ensure that no one forgets the brave crew who fought to save lives, never thinking of themselves. 

Join us to see Donald Usher speak: at EAA’s Aviation Adventure Speaker Series on June 16, 2016.

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