As Hope Fades, Stabilizer Failure Probed as Cause
Rescue workers failed to find any sign of survivors from the wreckage of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 on Tuesday, while officials released more information about what happened in the moments before the plane plunged into the Pacific Ocean, apparently killing all 88 people aboard.
As night began to fall, bodies from the crash were being recovered over a "tight" debris field of "3 to 5 miles," according to Vice Admiral Tom Collins of the U.S. Coast Guard, who said search and rescue missions would continue with all available vessels until he is "confident there is no human life."
Meanwhile, officials revealed the pilot of the doomed flight still thought he could make an emergency landing in Los Angeles just moments before the crash.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator John Hammerschmidt, giving details of the final exchanges between the plane and air traffic controllers, told reporters the pilot first reported ``control difficulties'' at 4:10 p.m. (7:10 p.m. EST.)
Eleven minutes later the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.
Hammerschmidt quoted a crew member as telling air traffic control three minutes after the first alert of trouble: ``We're still working on it.''
As the aircraft made a swift but apparently controlled descent, crew members advised at 4.15 p.m. they had a jammed stabilizer and were having trouble maintaining altitude.
But Hammerschmidt said they thought they could maintain altitude and intended to land at Los Angeles international.
Over the next few minutes, the pilots said they "were kind of stabilized and going to do some troubleshooting," but then said they had a jammed stabilizer. At 4:16 they were cleared for an emergency landing in Los Angeles.
The controllers cleared Flight 261 to 17,000 feet. The crew acknowledged that — "the last known transmission from Flight 261," Hammerschmidt said. At 4:21 p.m. the aircraft dropped from radar.
Investigators continued to examine reports that the plane's "stabilizer trim" was a possible cause of the disaster, while Alaska Airlines officials denied poor maintenance was a contributing factor.
At least one aviation expert has said that no crash has ever been blamed on the stabilizer, which was cited a problem by the crew of Flight 261 before the flight disappeared from radar on Monday. Alaska Airlines, meanwhile, was scrambling to deny that poor maintenance had anything to do with the crash.
Flight 261 was some 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport when it went down Monday afternoon with 88 people aboard after reporting problems with the aircraft stabilizer trim. The flight, half-full, was originally bound for San Francisco and Seattle from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and had been cleared for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport.
"I don't think it has ever happened where (the stabilizer) has become uncontrollable. This may be a precedent-setting accident," said Barry Schiff, a retired TransWorld Airlines captain and aviation safety consultant.
Another aviation expert suggested the problem with the stabilizer may have been a symptom of more complex troubles.
"There has really been nothing in the history of the airplane that would indicate it would be susceptible to this kind of (stabilizer) problem," said David Stempler, Air Travelers Association president and publisher of the Airline Accident Report Card.
On MD-80 series airplanes, the horizontal stabilizer looks like a small wing mounted on top of the tail. The stabilizer, which includes panels that pitch the nose up and down, is brought into balance, or "trimmed," from the cockpit.
While Alaska Airlines has a good safety record and has won consumer acclaim, it has been the subject of an Oakland, Calif., federal grand jury investigation over maintenance and repair records for some MD-80s in the past year.
A Federal Aviation Administration report found that records were falsified for two MD-80s made 840 flights in late 1998 and early 1999. Because of the altered records, the aircraft were considered to be in "unairworthy condition," FAA documents said.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans said the two inquiries were related to record keeping rather than safety issues, and the allegations involved two specific MD-80 planes.
The Los Angeles Times said Tuesday that one incident reported by airline mechanics in 1998 involved an MD-80 that began smoking as it was being taken out of a maintenance hangar even though it had been certified to fly.
The FAA last year proposed a $44,000 fine against the airline for violating maintenance procedures. The fine has been appealed.
"We see absolutely no connection. There is no question in my mind that this has anything to do with Monday's accident," Evans said.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the probe, citing grand jury secrecy rules. Evans said at the time that the airline was consistently told by federal investigators that airplane safety was not in question and that the inquiries were limited to record keeping.
Evans said neither of the planes at the center of the controversy was the aircraft that crashed Monday. He added, "We were told they were safe to fly. We have never been told to ground those planes."
Referring to that probe, John Kelly, chairman and CEO of Alaska Airlines, said Tuesday on CBS-TV's The Early Show" that the plane involved in the crash "was the subject of no investigation whatsoever."
"We have an impeccable safety record and a maintenance record that I would hold up to the industry," Kelly told reporters.
Pilots prepare for a "runaway stabilizer" every year, Schiff said, "in case it got jammed or out of control," but should there be a mechanical failure, there is little a pilot could do to save the plane.
Schiff compared it to a rudder on a boat — if a plane loses its horizontal stabilizer, there is no way to keep the nose pointed to the proper angle, and the aircraft will begin an uncontrollable dive.
Ron Wilson, a spokesman for the San Francisco airport, said, "Radar indicates it fell from 17,000 feet and then was lost from radar," according to KRON-TV in San Francisco. The drop and reports of the plane's "nose-dive" by witnesses would could be caused by a problem with the horizontal stabilizer.
FAA Issued Directive About Stabilizer in 1999
Problems with the stabilizers of the MD-80 may have been known. In April 1999, the FAA gave airlines until October 2000 to comply with a safety check concerning the vertical-to-horizontal stabilizer assembly in the MD-83 model as well as other MD-80 models.
"It's possible something like (reduced structural integrity) happened. ... We won't know unless the tail is recovered, and it is likely to be in tiny pieces," Schiff said. "They can probably determine from the black boxes any controllability problems, but they will never know any specific mechanical problems without the actual hardware."
When the FAA directive was brought up for review, it was noted that because it is a time-consuming process to remove the pivot pin and horizontal stabilizer to conduct a one-time visual inspection, it would create an undue burden on operators. The FAA determined the check would take approximately 117 work hours per airplane — including removal and installation — to accomplish the required inspection, and calculated the cost at about $7,020 per airplane.
Schiff said FAA directives are "not unusual" and it "doesn't mean there is a flaw" in the planes since routine checks are performed anyway. "Corrosion is not at all unusual," he said.
Evans said Flight 261 had undergone routine maintenance on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2000 — one day before the crash — and the maintenance staff reported that no major problems were found, other than "minor, routine repairs," including replacing a broken light bulb, and fixing a broken toilet, door and seat. The plane had passed a safety check with an "A" on Jan. 11 of this year, Evans said and had received a "C" on a much more thorough inspection on Jan. 13, 1999.
Airline Has Turbulent History
The airline had two fatal accidents in the 1970s, both in Alaska, according to Airsafe.com, a Web site that tracks plane crashes.
In 1971, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 727 approaching Juneau, Alaska, crashed into a mountain slope after the crew had received misleading navigational information. All 104 passengers and seven crew members were killed.
In 1976, one passenger was killed when a 727 overran the runway after landing in Ketchikan.
The airline operates several flights from Puerto Vallarta, a resort on Mexico's Pacific coast, to San Jose, San Francisco and other California cities.
Passengers and Crew
Alaska Airlines CEO John Kelly said he hoped people would be saved. "I am an eternal optimist. I've talked with the Coast Guard. That's some cold water, some deep water. It's not the best thing you want to have happen in the world, but miracles do happen." He is expected to hold a press briefing Tuesday afternoon.
He said the accident was the airline's first fatal accident in a quarter century. He defended his airline's safety record, saying it ranked with the best in the country. He declined to comment on the cause of the crash.
Both pilots were Alaska Airlines veterans. Capt. Ted Thompson, 53, was hired Aug. 16, 1982, and had 10,400 flying hours with the company. First Officer William Tansky, 57, was hired July 17, 1985, and had 8,047 flying hours with the Seattle-based airline.
Airports Become Grief Centers for Families and Friends
Meanwhile Airports in San Francisco and Seattle have become counseling centers, for grieving families of the crash victims.
Friends and family members went to the airports to greet loved ones — but instead they found display boards saying "see agent" about the flight.
Grief counselors are there to help them.
In San Francisco, Rabbi Josef Langer said he's telling families that the "world is a half-way station" but "the soul lives on."
Reuters and AP contributed to this report