This Day In History: August 16

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A plane crash at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Michigan kills 156 people on August 16, 1987. A four-year-old girl was the sole survivor of the accident, which was caused by pilot error.

Northwest Flight 255 was headed to California with a stopover in Phoenix when it pulled away from the gate in Detroit. While the DC-9 Super 82 taxied out to the runway, the pilot and co-pilot failed to conduct their pre-flight checks according to procedure and, as a result, the takeoff-warning system was never turned on. Later, there was speculation that the pilots may have been rushing the checks to avoid incoming bad weather.

A lack of communication between the pilot and co-pilot turned into a deadly mistake when neither extended the wing flaps prior to takeoff. The extended flaps work as a lifting surface on the trailing edge of the wings. As the plane rushed down the 6,800-foot runway, it lifted only 40 feet off the ground when it should already have been 600 feet in the air. At the end of the runway, the plane hit lampposts and a rental-car office. The plane then crashed onto a road a half of a mile away. On the Interstate 94 Bridge in Romulus, the plane hit a car and killed both people in the vehicle.

The fiery crash that ensued killed 154 other people, including Nick Vanos, a center for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Remarkably, one person survived the accident, four-year-old Cecelia Cichan of Tempe, Arizona.