In August 2022, we looked at a misleading ad on Yahoo titled, "These Mistakes Had Catastrophic Consequences." The photograph next to the ad showed a large airplane crashing into a bridge. This same picture has been referenced before by other websites as purportedly showing the last moments of Air Florida Flight 90, an airliner that crashed into a bridge in Washington, D.C. in 1982, killing 78 people.
The truth was that the image was a digital illustration created by an artist.
Finding the Artist
We clicked the ad on Yahoo. It led to a story on Investing.com titled, "25+ of the Most Expensive Mistakes in History." The article lasted 185 pages and never mentioned the picture from the ad.
A reverse image search on the handy website TinEye showed that the digital art was first published around the year 2009. According to BoredPanda.com, the illustration was created by a Canadian graphic designer named Steve McGhee. The website described McGhee's work as "depicting catastrophic events such as planes crashing, cities destroyed by tsunamis, aliens invading, and other end-of-the-world scenarios."
A Second Fake Image
A different picture has also been passed around in the past with the claim that it, too, shows the crash of Air Florida Flight 90. However, this image was simply a screenshot from a digital animation video that appeared in a reenactment in the National Geographic documentary, "Disaster on the Potomac":
Air Florida Flight 90
Air Florida Flight 90 went down on Jan. 13, 1982. The Washington Post chronicled the doomed airliner's brief journey on the 40th anniversary of the crash. After taking off during a snowstorm from Washington National Airport, the airplane "slammed into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River":
The crash investigation revealed a cascade of errors by the pilots of Air Florida Flight 90, an experienced crew that was nonetheless not used to flying in snow and ice. Its Boeing 737 lumbered down the runway, despite the first officer saying several times “that don’t seem right.”
“The pilot should say, ‘we should abort the take off,’” [Jeff Marcus, chief of safety recommendations at the National Transportation Safety Board] said. But the flight was already delayed, held up in a queue of departing planes, and aborting would have meant circling around for another round of de-icing.
So the jet took off, but only reached an altitude of 350 feet before hitting the bridge. The crash killed 74 crew members and passengers on the plane and four people on the ground.
In 2019, WUSA9 interviewed Joe Stiley, one of the five people onboard who survived the incident. He said that he initially blacked out after the crash, but was awakened by the icy water that began to fill the airplane:
In sum, no, the image that showed an airplane crashing into a bridge did not show the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90, nor was the picture even real. It was nothing more than a digital illustration created by a graphic designer.
“1982. Air Florida Flight 90 Hitting the 14th Street Bridge in Washington DC.” 9GAG, 4 Jan. 2018, https://9gag.com/gag/ax1ENzb.
“Air Florida Flight 90.” Rebellion Research, 14 Jan. 2022, https://www.rebellionresearch.com/air-florida-flight-90.
@aircrash_. Twitter, 13 Jan. 2022, https://twitter.com/aircrash_/status/1481553055699116032.
Duncan, Ian. “40 Years Ago, a 737 Crashed into the 14th Street Bridge during a Snowstorm, Killing 78.” Washington Post, 13 Jan. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2022/01/13/air-florida-crash-40-years/.
Littlepawz. “Supposedly, This Is a Historical Photo of Air Florida Flight 90 Crashing into 14th Street Bridge over Potomac River on January 13, 1982.” LittlePawz, 23 Dec. 2013, https://littlepawz.tumblr.com/post/70968042297/historical-photos-air-florida-flight-90-crashes.
National Geographic. “Disaster on the Potomac.” Air Crash Investigation, IMDb, 1 Mar. 2015. NotOrdinaryFox.
“The End Of The World Shown In Frightening Photo Manipulations By Steve McGhee.” Bored Panda, 15 Sept. 2015, https://www.boredpanda.com/recipe-for-disaster-digital-art-by-steve-mcghee/.
The Moment Air Florida Flight 90 Crashed into the Potomac River in Washington D.C. in 1982. WUSA9, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSAzXt4hLpI.
TinEye Reverse Image Search. https://tineye.com/.