Point Mogu, CA area Alaska Airlines Jet Crash, Jan 2000

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 found ruins.jpg Alaska Airlines Flight 261 memorial.jpg Alaska_Airlines_Flight_261_path.png


Oxnard, Calif. (AP) -- The pilots of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 struggled with a sudden control problem for six minutes before the jetliner crashed into the ocean off California with 88 people aboard, federal investigators said today.
The last minutes of the MD-83's flight Monday may have been witnessed by pilots aboard four other aircraft over the Santa Barbara Channel, and the National Transportation Safety Board was seeking to interview them.
Investigators also said today they had recovered four bodies and heard "pinging" from the ocean, apparently from the aircraft's flight recorders.
One of those could reveal what went wrong with the jet's tail controls.
NTSB member John Hammerschmidt released preliminary transcripts of air traffic control communications with the airliner at a news conference today while the search continued offshore for any signs of survivors.
The last routine transmission came at 3:55 p.m. PST, when the flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was cleared to continue on up the California coast to San Francisco.
At 4:10 p.m. the pilots advised they had control difficulties and were descending through 26,000 feet. A few seconds later they advised they were at 23,700 feet and there was "some discussion about their ability to control the aircraft," Hammerschmidt said.
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.
The plane crashed in water 300 feet to 750 feet deep. A witness described it as a nose dive, officials said.
Coast Guard ships, Navy vessels and a private boat combed the choppy sea about 10 miles off the coast today for additional debris that could help explain the crash. The position of the pinging was pinpointed by a Navy underwater demolition team helping with the search.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Tom Collins said the bodies recovered were those of an infant, two women and a man.
"This is still a search for human life. The decision to stop searching is mine, mine to make, and it's a difficult one," Collins said during a news conference.
Monday night, commercial squid boats used nets to haul in grim reminders of lives lost; a tennis shoe, a stuffed animal and a number o small souvenirs from Mexico. A stench of jet fuel hung in the air as the nets were pulled to the surface.
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, "trimmed," from the cockpit.
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.
Airline spokesman Jack Evans said the plane had no previous stabilizer problems, and Federal Aviation Administration spokesman John Clabes said it had never been in an accident.
There were 83 passengers and five crew members aboard, Evans said. Thirty-two were bound for San Francisco, 47 for Seattle, three were continuing on to Eugene, Ore., and one to Fairbanks, Alaska. The two pilots were based in Los Angeles and the three flight attendants were based in Seattle.
The passengers included three airline employees, four employees of sister airline Horizon and 23 relatives or friends of the employees.
Near the entrance of Port Hueneme, where the search effort was based, a 7-foot wooden cross festooned with flowers was erected today. A white plastic angel sat at the base with a candle blowing in a jar.
Some local residents bowed their heads in prayer. From the site they could see search aircraft patroling offshore above the crash area.
"They just stand for a while with their own thoughts. It's tragic," said Neal Silverman, 47, who moved into his beach house just a week ago.
Both pilots were Alaska Airlines veterans. Capt. TED THOMPSON, 53, was fired 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.
The plane itself was built by McDonnell-Douglas, now part of Boeing, and delivered to Alaska Airlines in 1992, said John Thom, a spokesman for Boeing's Douglas aircraft unit.
Evans said the plane was serviced Sunday, went through a low-level maintenance check on Jan. 11 and had a more thorough routine check last January.
An FAA service difficuty report for the plane includes 44 incidents dating to 1992, most of them dealing with emergency lights and problems with sliding windows not opening.
In 1995, an engine failed and the plane landed without incident, the report said. The engine was replaced.
Alaska Airlines, which has the image of an Eskimo painted on the tails of its planes, serves more than 40 cities in Alaska, Canada, Mexico and five Western states.
In had two fatal accidents in the 1970s, both in Alaska.
The MD-80 series is a twin-jet version of the more widely known DC-9, with a single aisle and an engine on each side of the tail. It went into service in 1980 and of the 1,167 series planes delivered, Boeing reported last year, only nine had been lost in accidents.
Alaska Airlines has been the subject of an Oakland, Calif., federal grand jury investigation over maintenance and repair records for some MC-80s in the past year.
A Federal Aviation Administration report found two MD-80s that made 840 flights in late 1998 and early 1999 on which records were falsified. Because of the altered records, the aircraft were considered to be in
"unairworthy condition," FAA documents 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.
Referring to that probe, John Kelly, chairman and CEO of Alaska Airlines, said the plane involved in the crash was not the subject of any investigation.
Before this week, the most recent fatal crash in the United States involving an MD-80 series jet was last summer's American Airlines accident in Little Rock, Ark. Eleven people died and 110 were injured when an MD-82 trying to land in a storm ran off a runway, broke apart and caught fire.