Minutes before the plane plunged into the ocean, the pilots on the flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco reported to air traffic control that the horizontal stabilizer on their MD-83 aircraft had jammed. The stabilizer is a small wing on top of the tail used to keep the plane flying level. Without control of the horizontal stabilizer, the pilots have no way of keeping the plane balanced.
Pilots on Flight 261 contacted a maintenance crew in Seattle for help in their attempts to regain control of the plane.
In April 1999 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a directive instructing airlines to inspect the MD-80 series aircraft for corroded hinges that join the horizontal and vertical tail sections. While no one knows exactly why Flight 261 crashed, mechanics had not yet inspected this aircraft. Alaska Airlines scheduled the inspection for June 2000. The FAA order noted that the corrosion could jeopardize the "structural integrity" of an airplane. Still, the FAA gave airlines 18 months to repair any corroded parts.
In June 1998, nine years after the first cases of corrosion were reported, the FAA proposed that the airlines disassemble part of the tail section to perform the inspections and replace parts if needed. The procedure was projected to take 117 hours and cost $7,020 per airplane.
The Air Line Pilots Association endorsed the procedure, but at least three airlines protested. Officials at American Airlines, which operate 259 MD-80s, said too many planes would be put out of service if they were forced to meet the deadline. They complained that it would cost them $2.2 million.
In response to the airlines' complaints, the FAA scaled back the rules. Instead of taking apart the tail, the airlines could just check the exterior of the parts for corrosion. This would take an estimated one hour per plane. This one-hour inspection hadn't been performed on Flight 261.
Alaska Airlines has also been the subject of a federal investigation looking into allegations that supervisors falsified logs at their Oakland International Airport maintenance facility.
Documents seized by the government in December 1998 showed one MD-80 serviced in Oakland flew after an incomplete final check. Another aircraft was cleared after a supervisor falsified papers for a check of the plane's throttle. The FAA concluded that the planes were flown 844 times in an "unworthy condition" in three months.
John Gustafson, an airline mechanic in Oakland, quit Alaska after he complained that supervisors urged him to clear an aircraft with an unsafe engine.
The Flight 261 aircraft was overhauled twice in Oakland. It had also been serviced in Seattle on January 11 and January 30, the day before the crash.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that "a source close to the federal grand jury investigation of Alaska's maintenance procedures said the aircraft was due for a tail assembly check in January 1999. 'Alaska didn't have the correct equipment (to check for corrosion) at the time,' said the source.... 'Yet I believe they certified the plane as having been ready and repaired.'"
Newspaper accounts of the crash and investigation have tried to blame the mechanics for the falsified safety records, letting Alaska Airlines off the hook. The Los Angeles Times reported February 5, "FAA inspectors uncovered evidence that mechanics had falsified records and failed to complete required maintenance." A few paragraphs later the article states, "Alaska officials defended their maintenance program and denied that there had been any impropriety." But it was the mechanics themselves who blew the whistle on the company, and the company that carried out retribution against the union workers.
In like fashion, articles are now implying that the pilots of Flight 261, in the midst of the emergency, share some responsibility for the crash. Some are second guessing the pilots' decision not to attempt an earlier landing. The Seattle Times wrote February 4, "One of the possibilities reportedly being examined by investigators is that in following standard emergency procedures, the crew inadvertently did something that led to the final plunge.
On February 2 an American Airlines MD-80 made an emergency landing in Phoenix after the pilot reported a possible horizontal stabilizer problem. Three days later, another Alaska Airlines MD-83 returned to Reno, Nevada, shortly after takeoff when the pilot reported similar problems.
Jack Evans, a spokesman for Alaska, said the airline has no plans to ground its 35 MD-83s or make any unscheduled maintenance checks.
The Seattle Times noted February 7, "Alaska Airlines officials think the Reno problem occurred because pilots are being over cautious and running the stabilizer through several complete up-and-down cycles before takeoff--'overheating the motors,' Evans said."
Bernie Senter is an airline worker and a member of the International Association of Machinists Local 1781.
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