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Tape Shows Pilots’ Fight to Control Doomed Jet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dramatic recording released Wednesday shows that the pilots struggled valiantly to regain control in the seconds before a stricken Alaska Airlines jet plunged into the Pacific off Ventura County last January, killing all 88 on board.

An “extremely loud noise"--apparently the sound of the plane’s horizontal stabilizer breaking away--echoed through the twin-engine MD-83 as the pilots tried to maneuver for an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, according to a transcript of the cockpit voice recording released at federal hearings on the crash.

Without a stabilizer--the wing-like part of the tail that largely controls the up-and-down pitch of the nose--the plane went into a dive.

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“Mayday!” co-pilot William Tansky shouted.

A microphone picked up the sounds of loose objects crashing about the cockpit.

“We are inverted,” pilot Ted Thompson said. “We gotta get it.”

“Push! Push! Push!” Thompson yelled 10 seconds later. “Push the blue side up!”

Aviation safety consultant Barry Schiff said Thompson apparently was referring to the blue side of the ball on the plane’s attitude indicator, which shows which direction is up. Thompson probably was asking Tansky to help him shove the control yokes forward in an effort to raise the nose of the inverted plane.

“Push!” Thompson shouted again as the plane continued its steepening dive.

“I’m pushing!” Tansky shouted back.

“OK. Now, let’s kick rudder,” Thompson said in an apparent effort to roll the plane upright, using the rudder, which is controlled by pedals on the floor. “Left rudder! Left rudder!”

“I can’t reach it,” Tansky replied.

“OK. Right rudder, right rudder,” Thompson said. “At least, upside down, we’re flying.”

Thompson attempted to apply the speed brakes, plates on the wings that flip up to slow the plane. But experts say that without the stabilizer, the plane was doomed--hopelessly out of balance and lacking any controls that could have pulled it out of the dive.

“Here we go,” Thompson said.

One second later, the jetliner slammed into the sea near Anacapa Island.

Officials say Flight 261 had made a routine takeoff Jan. 31 at 1:37 p.m. on its scheduled flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle. But as the plane climbed through 29,000 feet, the pilots turned off the autopilot.

Experts say this may have been the first indication that the stabilizer was malfunctioning--unable to hold the aircraft in the desired attitude without manual control input from the pilots.

About two hours into the flight, as the plane neared the United States, the pilots radioed their maintenance and dispatch base in Seattle, saying they were having trouble with the stabilizer, which appeared to be jamming. Portions of these radio conversations were made public last May.

The base offered several solutions, using different controls, but none of them seemed to work. The pilots then said they would like to make an emergency landing at LAX, and the base asked why they did not wish to land instead in San Francisco.

“A lotta times it’s windy and rainy and wet in San Francisco, and it seems to me that a dry runway, where the wind is usually right down the runway, [would be] a little more reasonable,” Thompson said in the transcript released Wednesday.

“Uh, if you want to land at L.A. for safety reasons, we’ll do that,” a dispatcher replied. “We’ll tell you, though, that if we land in L.A., we’ll be looking at an hour to an hour and a half [delay]. We have a major flow problem going on right now.”

Thompson issued a sharp reply: “I didn’t really want to hear about the flow being the reason you’re calling us, because I’m concerned about overflying suitable [emergency] airports.”

“Well, we wanna do what’s safe,” the base replied. “We just wanna make sure you have all the, uh, info.”

As Flight 261 continued up the coast, the stabilizer problem worsened. Corrective measures using the plane’s autopilot, speed brakes, flaps and the control yokes would seem to momentarily arrest the plane’s tendency to nose over, but every time the pilots thought they had the problem under control, it would crop up again.

Sensing that the passengers might have realized something was wrong, Thompson broadcast a message over the intercom:

“Folks, we have had a flight-control problem up front here. We’re working on it. That’s Los Angeles off to the right, there. That’s where we’re intending to go. We’re kind of busy up here, working on this situation. I don’t anticipate any big problems, once we get a couple of subsystems on the line, but we will be going to LAX and I’d anticipate parking there in about 20 to 30 minutes.”

About two minutes later, there was a noise in the back of the plane.

“You heard it?” Tansky asked.

“Yeah,” Thompson replied. “I think the stab trim is broke.”

Three minutes later, the pilots heard a thump.

Fifteen seconds later, the “extremely loud noise” filled the cabin and Flight 261 went into its fatal dive.

Thus far, much of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the crash has centered on the apparent failure of the jackscrew mechanism in the plane’s tail that raises and lowers the front edge of the stabilizer. Investigators say wreckage indicated the mechanism was not adequately lubricated.

The NTSB hearings on the crash are expected to continue through Saturday. Much of the testimony is expected to address increasing questions about the design of the mechanism, the effectiveness of maintenance procedures at Alaska and the oversight of maintenance by the Federal Aviation Administration.


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