The incident aircraft was a twin-engine McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (registration number N312RC) a derivative of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 and part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series of aircraft. The jet was manufactured in 1981, entering service with Republic Airlines and acquired by Northwest Airlines in its merger with Republic in 1986. At the time of the accident, the aircraft in question was painted in a hybrid livery between Northwest Airlines and Republic Airlines, featuring blue Republic striping with red Northwest titles and a white tail.
Flight 255's captain was John R. Maus, age 57. Maus was an experienced pilot who had worked for the airline for 31 years. Other pilots who had flown with Maus described him as a "competent and capable pilot" who had a reputation for operating "by-the-book".
The flight's first officer was David J. Dodds, age 35. Dodds had logged 8,044 flight hours during his career, and had worked for the airline for more than eight years. Other than one training report during his probationary period, all of the airline's captains with whom Dodds had flown graded him as average or above average. Other pilots who had recently flown with Dodds later described his performance in favorable terms.
The flight crew began August 16, 1987, by operating the incident aircraft as Northwest Flight 750 from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, flying to MBS International Airport in Saginaw, Michigan. Departing Saginaw, the flight crew operated the same aircraft as Flight 255, flying to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California with intermediate stops at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Michigan (outside of Detroit, Michigan) and Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. Other than a minor problem taxiing to the arrival gate, the flight from Saginaw to Detroit was uneventful.
At approximately 20:32 EDT, Flight 255 departed the gate in Detroit with 149 passengers and six crew members. The dispatch packet provided by the airline included takeoff performance data based on using runways 21L or 21R. However, the flight was cleared for takeoff on Detroit's runway 3C, the shortest available runway.
Flight 255 made its takeoff roll on Detroit's runway 3C at approximately 20:44, with Maus at the controls. The plane lifted off the runway at 170 knots (195 mph, 315 km/h), and began to roll from side to side just under 50 feet (15 m) above the ground. The MD-82's rate of climb was greatly reduced as a result of the flaps not being extended, and approximately 2,760 feet (840 m) past the end of runway 3C, the plane's left wing struck a light pole in an airport rental car lot. The impact caused the left wing to start disintegrating and catch fire. The plane rolled 90 degrees to the left, striking the roof of an Avis car-rental building. The plane (now uncontrolled) crashed inverted onto Middlebelt Road and struck vehicles just north of its intersection with Wick Road, killing two people on the ground in an automobile. It then broke apart, with the fuselage skidding across the road, disintegrating and bursting into flames as it hit a railroad overpass and the overpass of eastbound Interstate 94 (I-94).
The flight crew and all but one of the passengers were killed in the crash.
Seven of the deceased passengers resided in Orange County, California, and four additional people had Orange County as their destination. The remainder of the passengers were residents of Arizona, Michigan, or other states.
One of the passengers on Northwest 255 was Nick Vanos, a center for the Phoenix Suns. Two motorists on nearby Middlebelt Road also died and five people on the ground were injured, one seriously. The bodies were moved to the Northwest hangar at the airport, which served as a temporary morgue. More than 30 passengers on the flight were under age 25; two 12-year-olds, Arlene Nelson of Detroit and Justin Keener of Scottsdale, Arizona, were unaccompanied minors.
The sole survivor of the crash was four-year-old Cecelia Cichan (later Crocker) of Tempe, Arizona. She was found belted in her seat by Romulus firemen, several feet from the bodies of her mother, Paula Cichan, her father Michael and her six-year-old brother David. After the crash, Cecelia lived with her maternal aunt and uncle (who shielded her from public attention) in Birmingham, Alabama.
The National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation into the crash.
The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) provided evidence of the flight crew's omission of the taxi checklist. Although the stall warning was annunciated, investigators determined from the CVR that the aural takeoff warning was not annunciated by that warning system. The NTSB was unable to determine a cause for the electrical-power failure in the Central Aural Warning System (CAWS):
The failure of the takeoff warning system was caused by the loss of input 28V dc. electric power between the airplane's left dc. bus and the CAWS unit. The interruption of the input power to the CAWS occurred at the P-40 circuit breaker. The mode of interruption could not be determined.
The NTSB also could not determine if the circuit breaker had been tripped, intentionally opened, or if electric current failed to flow through the breaker to the CAWS while the breaker was closed:
Because the P-40 circuit breaker was badly damaged during the accident, it was impossible for the Safety Board to determine positively its pre-impact condition. There were three possible conditions that would have caused power to be interrupted at the P-40 circuit breaker: the circuit breaker was intentionally opened by either the flight crew or maintenance personnel, the circuit breaker tripped because of a transient overload and the flight crew did not detect the open circuit breaker, or the circuit breaker did not allow current to flow to the CAWS power supply and did not annunciate the condition by tripping.
The NTSB published its final report on May 10, 1988, in which it concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the accident was the flightcrew’s failure to use the taxi checklist to ensure that the flaps and slats were extended for takeoff. Contributing to the accident was the absence of electrical power to the airplane takeoff warning system which thus did not warn the flightcrew that the airplane was not configured properly for takeoff. The reason for the absence of electrical power could not be determined.
In 2008, Spanair Flight 5022 crashed near the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport due to incorrect flap settings created by the omission of the taxi checklist and failure of the warning system. In that accident, which involved the same aircraft type as Flight 255, 154 people died.
In memory of the victims, a black granite memorial was erected in 1994; it stands (surrounded by blue spruce trees) at the top of the hill at Middlebelt Road and I-94, the site of the crash. The memorial has a dove with a ribbon in its beak reading, "Their spirit still lives on ..."; below it are the names of those who perished in the crash. Another monument to the victims (many of whom were from the Phoenix area) stands next to Phoenix City Hall.
On August 16, 2007, the twentieth anniversary of the crash, a memorial service was held at the site. For some people affected by the incident, it was their first return to the site since the crash.
After the crash Northwest followed standard procedure; the airline no longer used 255 as a flight number. From late 1987 until the company was acquired by Delta in early 2010, the last nonstop flight from Detroit to Phoenix was renumbered as Flight 261. Delta continues the retirement of 255 by Northwest; as of 2014, there is no Delta flight 255.
On August 16, 2012 (the 25th anniversary of the crash), a memorial service was again held at the crash site. Family and friends of the victims and others from across the Metro Detroit area (including local media) attended, and a local priest read each victim's name aloud. Many attendees had seen recent local-media footage of Cecelia Cichan Crocker (the only survivor), and few knew her whereabouts or condition after the crash.
The story of the disaster was featured in a ninth-season episode of the Discovery Channel Canada / National Geographic series Mayday (known as Air Emergency in the US, Mayday in Ireland and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and the rest of world). The episode is titled Alarming Silence (broadcast in some countries as Cockpit Chaos). The Mayday episode explores the events surrounding the crash and its investigation, with interviews of Flight 255 rescue workers, investigators and other MD-80 pilots.
Cecelia Cichan Crocker appears in a 2013 documentary, Sole Survivor, about four sole survivors of plane crashes. She did not speak publicly about the crash until 2013, when the documentary was released. Crocker has a tattoo of an airplane on her wrist in remembrance and says that she is not afraid of flying.
Around the August NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway, Tom Higgins posts his recollections of Northwest 255. Higgins, then of The Charlotte Observer, and fellow NASCAR beat reporters Steve Waid and Gary McCredie (of Grand National Scene) arrived at a hotel near the Detroit Metropolitan Airport awaiting a Monday morning flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, after finishing coverage of the Champion Spark Plug 400 that afternoon, and were witnesses to the plane crash.