New Theory in Alaska Airlines Crash

A transcript of the cockpit voice recorder of doomed Alaska Airlines Flight 261 shows that the pilots struggled to get the plane upright before it crashed into the Pacific Ocean last January.

The National Transportation Safety Board released the cockpit recording transcript today as it opened a four-day hearing into the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. The airliner bound from Mexico to San Francisco went out of control and plunged into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles on Jan. 31, killing all 88 aboard.

NTSB investigators have promised to pursue every lead to determine a cause of the crash, saying they will wait until the four-day hearing is finished and have time to study the information gathered to reach a conclusion. But so far, the controls in the MD-80’s tail have become suspect in the accident. Investigators say the grease Alaska Airlines used to lubricate a key stabilizing mechanism in the tail section of the plane may have broken down the metal of the part, causing the fatal plunge.

Terrifying 31 Minutes Today’s hearing focused on the terrifying last minutes of Flight 261 and pilots’ efforts to save the lives of their passengers. Noting the presence of families of some crash victims in the audience, NTSB member John Hammerschmidt opened the session by Saying, “I want to assure them that the safety board will pursue every lead toward an ultimate solution.”

The 31-minute recording begins with Capt. Ted Thompson and First Officer Bill Tansky detecting a problem with the plane’s stabilizing mechanism and contacting Alaska Airlines’ maintenance base in Seattle. Soon the crew requests a diversion to Los Angeles International Airport.

Twelve minutes before the crash, the pilots are in a crisis situation. Thompson tells air traffic controllers there is a glitch in the stabilizer and the plane is in a full nose-dive.

“We are in vertical dive,” Thompson says. “We’ve lost vertical control of our airplane.”

According to the transcript, two faint bumps are heard, and the plane goes into a steep dive from 31,000 feet to 24,000 feet, exceeding the aircraft’s maximum allowable airspeed of 343 knots.

Realizing they cannot get the stabilizer out of a its full nose-down angle, Thompson tells Tansky, “We’re worse than we were.”

Thompson tries to calm passengers, saying “I don’t anticipate any big problems once we get a couple of sub-systems on the line.”

The flight crew advise controllers they need time to reconfigure the plane to land but want to make sure they can control the plane. “I’d like to do that out here over the bay if I may,” Thompson says.

‘Here We Go’ With just under four minutes left on the recording, a flight attendant comes to the cockpit to report “a big bang back there.” Thompson says he heard it too.

The pilots make two attempts to extend the slats and flaps to slow the plane for landing but with under two minutes of the recording left, a faint thump is followed by a loud noise.

“Mayday,” says Tansky followed by Thompson saying the plane is upside down, “we are inverted.”

The two pilots trade instructions for working the controls but the effort is in vain as the plane takes a final dive from 18,000 feet.

“Ah here we go,” Thompson says just before the plane hit the water. ABCNEWS’ Lisa Stark, The Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report.