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Alaska Air Flight 261 Crash

February 1, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS: Teams of investigators on board Coast Guard ships, Navy vessels, and private boats combed a debris field four miles wide searching for bodies and wreckage from yesterday’s crash. Pinging noises, presumably from the aircraft’s black boxes, were detected, but the flight recorders could be more than 300 feet below the surface. They have not been recovered.

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 left Puerto Vallarta, a resort city on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, yesterday, bound first for San Francisco, and then for Seattle.

Just after 4:00 PM Pacific Time, one of the pilots radioed, saying the jet, then at 26,000 feet, was in a dive. The crew regained control at 24,000 feet, but then told controllers that the plane’s horizontal stabilizer was jammed.

Mounted on the tail of the plane, the stabilizer controls the pitch of the nose, and keeps the aircraft from diving downward. The jet was cleared to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles, and told to descend to 17,000 feet.

At a news conference in California today, John Hammerschmidt of the National Transportation Safety Board described what happened next.

JOHN HAMMERSCHMIDT: At approximately 4:16 Pacific Standard Time, the flight was cleared to LAX and asked if they wanted a lower altitude. The flight responded that they needed to get down to 10,000 feet to change– also to change their configuration, that is, the plane’s flight configuration, and they wanted to do this over the bay, over the water. And the flight crew acknowledged a clearance to 17,000 feet. The flight crew acknowledged the clearance to 17,000 and advised they needed a block altitude, and this is the last known transmission from Flight 261.

SPENCER MICHELS: Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles North of Los Angeles International Airport near Point Mugu.

The plane was an MD-83 in the MD-80’s series. Built in 1992 by McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing, it is a twin-engine version of the DC-9; it had logged more than 26,000 hours of flight time. Alaska Airlines, the nation’s tenth largest, has a good safety record. Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans said the pilots were well-versed in the MD-80 aircraft.

JACK EVANS: Both the captain and the first officer of this aircraft were highly experienced MD-80 pilots. Both of them had served a number of years as MD-80 pilots, and also had served as military pilots before that, and I believe that one of them was also a flight instructor here at Alaska Airlines.

SPENCER MICHELS: Relatives of the 88 passengers and crew on board gathered at airports in both San Francisco and Seattle, where counselors were available. Alaska Airlines offered to transport them to Southern California to be near the crash site.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, we’re joined by Lee Dickinson, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is now the director of Exponent Failure Analysis, an engineering and investigative firm that specializes in transportation accidents.

Mr. Dickinson, we know only a little bit about what happened, certainly not much beyond what we just heard about in that NTSB briefing. But we do know that the plane was having trouble and the trouble focused on this horizontal stabilizer. What more can you tell us about that?

LEE DICKINSON: Well, you’re right, Gwen. The information we have so far that’s been released by the Safety Board is that at some point in time, the crew mentioned on the air traffic control tapes that they were having problems with the horizontal stabilizer. What this means we don’t know yet. One of the things we have to be cautious about is — and the safety board has to look into — whether or not this is something that is a triggering event or is this something else that resulted from something else happening. That’s why right now all doors are still open. That is an area that the safety board will definitely be looking at: Inspection, maintenance. They’ll look specifically at any possible problems that the horizontal stabilizer or the elevators and furthermore, that will be one piece of the puzzle that they need to solve.

GWEN IFILL: And when you say triggering events, you mean maybe the jam stabilizer was a symptom, rather than the actual problem?

LEE DICKINSON: It may be. One of the things we have to be careful about –and I remember having a discussion with you about Egypt Air 990 — we’re less than 24 hours into this accident. We have to keep everything into perspective. Don’t take something out of context and focus on that and then tomorrow have to explain why you were wrong yesterday.

GWEN IFILL: Absolutely. But one more thing about that stabilizer, it basically keeps the plane flying straight. That’s what it does. It controls ascent and decent. Is it possible to fly a plane without one?

LEE DICKINSON: No. What that does is make sure — it controls the pitch of the airplane, the pitch meaning does it ascend, does it fly level or does it go in a downward slope? And the way that happens is it’s controlled by the horizontal stabilizer. And, therefore if you lose that, if you lose any control from the horizontal stabilizer, you really have no control in terms of pitch, so the airplane could do a lot of the different things.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Egypt Air 990. It does feel like we keep having these conversations and we keep coming back to this question of the black boxes. They heard the pinging today. We presume that’s good news.

LEE DICKINSON: I would say that’s very good news. It was my understanding I heard one of the reports earlier today that one of the Coast Guard officials said they heard pinging. Now, does that mean that it’s from the cockpit voice recorder or the flight data recorder or both? I don’t know. But one of the things that they will try to do is not only identify and locate where the recorders are but then retrieve them. And one of the things that your viewers should be aware of or hopefully will know is that if they get the cockpit voice recorder, that will have information on it from the crew talking to the air traffic control, talking among themselves pick up sounds in the cockpit. The flight data recorder should give information about the airplane itself. What was the aircraft doing at the time of the event? The question about the horizontal stabilizer — if it is a more sophisticated flight data recorder, a digital flight data recorder, it may have information or should have information about not only the horizontal stabilizer but also other control surfaces on the airplane.

GWEN IFILL: How difficult– another difference from Egypt Air 990 is Egypt Air 990 went down in about 250 feet of water and it still took them two weeks to find those black boxes. This is more like 700 feet they told us today. How difficult does that make what is now being called a search-and-rescue operation for this aircraft?

LEE DICKINSON: Well I think what’s going to happen is you’ve troubled or tripled the depth of the water where apparently where the recorders are. Typically it will take more than… It will take deep diving for divers to go down to that depth less than the or greater than, sorry, the 200-250 feet for Egypt Air 990. But I would assume that the Navy and the Coast Guard are using the technology to locate these; they need some type of submarine or non-personed submarine down to try to locate where they are and maybe even use technology or the equipment itself to locate and pick up these recorders.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go back up in the air for the last few minutes that the NTSB, that John Hammerschmidt was just describing to us. How unusual is it for a plane going at full cruising altitude to suddenly encounter a problem?

LEE DICKINSON: Well, sometimes problems occur but nobody hears about them because the system is so safe and there’s so much redundancy built into the system that it’s usually taken care of. In this case unfortunately it wasn’t taken care of. We need to find out exactly what’s going on. Typically when accidents occur it’s not one single event that causes a plane to crash or a train to derail or something like that. There’s usually a number of events that are occurring simultaneously together that then cause the crash to occur or the accident to occur.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go back up in the air for the last few minutes that the NTSB – that John Hammerschmidt was just describing to us. How unusual is it for a plane going at full cruising altitude to suddenly encounter a problem?

LEE DICKINSON: Well, sometimes problems occur but nobody hears about them because the system is so safe and there’s so much redundancy built into the system that it’s usually taken care of. In this case unfortunately it wasn’t taken care of. We need to find out exactly what’s going on. Typically when accidents occur it’s not one single event that causes a plane to crash or a train to derail or something like that. There’s usually a number of events that are occurring simultaneously together that then cause the crash to occur or the accident to occur.

GWEN IFILL: The MD-80 was a relatively young plane, seven or eight years ago and Alaska Airlines, what do we know about their safety record?

LEE DICKINSON: Well, you are indeed correct. The airplane was manufactured in 1992. Assuming that– I don’t know specifically when in 1992 but at best it’s going to be eight years old. It had something on the order of over 26,000 hours on it. What we know about Alaska Airlines is that this is really the third major fatal accident they’ve had, but the one that I’m thinking of early on was I believe in 1971 where 104 passengers were killed and five crew members. And I believe in 1976 there was a run off the runway or a runway extension accident where subsequently a passenger died of a heart attack.

GWEN IFILL: But nothing like this?

LEE DICKINSON: No way.

GWEN IFILL: How important is the description? They told us there were four other pilots who were eyewitnesses to seeing this plane go down. How important is the information that they will be providing investigators?

LEE DICKINSON: One of the things that the Safety Board will be doing is trying to collect information from anybody who can provide good, useful information. Hopefully, pilots know what they’re looking for. They’re trained to be knowledgeable on these types of things. If see this information, they will relate it to the Safety Board. It will collect that information and use it as another data point or data points in determining the factual information about the accident itself. That information will then be coupled and used as the foundation to develop an analysis which then will lead to the cause of the accident and hopefully recommendations to prevent something like this happening again.

GWEN IFILL: And hopefully relatively soon. Lee Dickinson, thank you very much for joining us.

LEE DICKINSON: You’re welcome, Gwen.

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