WASHINGTON — On Jan. 13, 1982, arctic air gripped most of the country east of the Rockies. Atlanta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama set record lows as the temperature plunged below zero just two days earlier. An area of low pressure swung through the Deep South leaving four inches of snow in Birmingham and Atlanta.
The low then turned and moved up the coast in true Nor’easter fashion. This was not a huge storm, but big enough with plenty of cold air in place to cause major problems. National Airport was closed, but reopened at noon.
Air Florida Flight 90 was scheduled to take off at 2:30 p.m. The plane was late and was de-iced shortly after 3 p.m. Moderate to heavy snow was still falling with temperatures in the low twenties.
AFF 90 had trouble being towed away from the gate. The pilot decided to use his reverse thrusters to get away from the gate. This sucked in a lot of snow and debris into the engines and iced over a probe, which in turn led to a false higher measurement of engine power.
Finally, he was towed away from the gate. He was cleared for takeoff shortly before 4 p.m. Captain Wheaton decided to use the heat from the engines of the flight ahead of him to melt the ice.
The plane’s engines heated the wings on AFF 90 melting the snow and ice, but it refroze and became even heavier, dooming Air Flight Florida 90. The plane never climbed above 400 feet and crashed onto the 14th Street bridge killing four people in cars.
All in all, 78 lives were lost and only five people were pulled from the wreckage in the frozen Potomac.
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