Alaska Air Crash Hearing Focuses on Jackscrew

W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 14, 2000 -- The tail jackscrew that helps to stabilize an aircraft was the focus of attention today as engineers and inspectors offered their ideas on what caused the fatal plunge of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 into the Pacific Ocean.

Mike O’Neil, a Federal Aviation Administration engineer from Long Beach, Calif., testified the jackscrew was found with little grease on it but that other considerations such as “fatigue” limits and maintenance history were not critical factors.

“The jackscrew assembly … had exhibited an acceptable service record,” he told a hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board. And when the part from the crashed plane was recovered, he said, “there was very little evidence of lubricant on the assembly, on the jackscrew itself.”

Testifying on the second day of what is expected to be a four-day hearing, O’Neil dodged a direct question on whether the entire horizontal stabilizer system that includes the jackscrew is safe for DC-9/MD-80 planes. He would say only that it “demonstrates compliance” with federal safety regulations.

Richard Rodriguez, the NTSB investigator in charge, noted Wednesday “that Alaska Airlines was the only major operator in the United States that was using Aeroshell 33 to lubricate the jackscrews in their fleet.” Aeroshell 33 was developed to Boeing Co.’s specifications, he said.

Looking for Clues A sample jackscrew was prominently displayed in the entrance hallway outside the NTSB public boardroom.

On Wednesday, investigators released a series of reports that included pictures of a damaged jackscrew and the riveting transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, a dramatic re-enactment of the plane’s final moments.

It reflected how pilot Ted Thompson and co-pilot William Tansky overcame one nose dive, only to fight their fatal second descent until the crash off California that killed all 88 people aboard.

The NTSB will not determine the cause of the accident until it completes its hearing, but much of the information so far is focused on problems with the jackscrew, and grease applied to it. The part controls the DC-9/MD-80 horizontal stabilizer system.

“Public hearings such as this are exercises in accountability,” board member John Hammerschmidt, overseeing the hearing, said Wednesday.

He said the hearing will last through Saturday and delve into the flight control system, the aircraft’s condition and maintenance and Federal Aviation Administration involvement.

Victims’ family members, and attorneys who have filed suits on behalf of some of the family members, are attending the hearing. The suits seek millions of dollars in damages.

“It’s like the reverse lottery,” said real-estate agent Larry Nelson, 35, of Lynnwood, Wash., speaking of the death of his mother, Charlene Larsen Sipe, 54.

“I figured the chances are better of winning $6 million in the lottery than in dying in an airplane crash. My mom hated flying anyway. Maybe she had some kind of premonition years ago.”

Pilots’ Desperate Final Minutes The transcript of the final 32 minutes of the Jan. 31 flight showed the pilots maintained their professional composure even through the final moments as they desperately fought to keep the plane aloft.

It had come back from the brink of one nose dive when the fatal second descent began, a plunge of 18,000 feet in 75 seconds into the Pacific Ocean.

“Ah, here we go” were pilot Thompson’s last words.

A second later, the plane’s five crew members and 83 passengers bound from Mexico to San Francisco slammed into the water near Los Angeles.

The transcript also shows the pilots initially came under pressure from an Alaska Airlines dispatcher in Seattle not to divert the Puerto Vallarta-San Francisco flight to Los Angeles.

“Throughout the flight,” said fellow Alaska Airlines pilots Tom Kemp and Ben Forrest in a statement, “the pilots displayed incredible poise, resourcefulness and professionalism.”