The Fall Of Flight 261

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The crew of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 had a final, desperate plan to save the 88 lives on board. The plane seemed to be plummeting because a key mechanism had jammed in a position that was forcing its nose down. The crew radioed a company mechanic on the ground with an urgent plea: Were there any "hidden circuit breakers" that could cut off power to the horizontal stabilizer--the device they believed had taken deadly control of the plane? No, the mechanic replied, he didn't know of any. But as the plane temporarily stabilized, he signed off on an optimistic note: "See you on the ground."

Flight 261 never made it to the ground. After a long, agonizing struggle with the lurching aircraft, punctuated by two loud noises, the twin-engine MD-83 hurtled toward the Pacific in a grim death spiral--"spinning," "corkscrewing" and "nose down," in the words of eyewitnesses. When the plane made its high-speed crash into the water 40 miles from Los Angeles, all 83 passengers and five crew members were apparently killed instantly.

In an all-too-familiar ritual, news reports quickly and poignantly filled out the lives that matched the names on the passenger list. The six Clemetsons were a bright-eyed young family: a doctor, his wife, two sons and two daughters. A single Seattle school, John Hay Elementary, lost four of its students.

Almost as disturbing as the lives lost was the question of whether the crash was avoidable. Alaska Airlines has a remarkable safety record, despite landing in some of the most hazardous conditions in the world. This was its first major accident in decades. But it is also facing possible fines for alleged maintenance violations, and it is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation. The crash comes at a time when federal officials have been getting tougher with airlines over alleged safety lapses--and becoming more willing to bring criminal charges. As investigators look into the causes of the crash, the stakes for Alaska Airlines could be sky high.

Flight 261 began its journey last Monday--from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle--with no apparent problems. The first hour and a half was smooth flying: at 3:55 p.m. the crew received routine clearance to remain at a cruising altitude of 31,000 ft. The first sign of trouble came 15 minutes later, when--according to the National Transportation Safety Board--the pilot reported that he was having "control difficulties" and that the plane had descended to 26,000 ft. Moments later, it was down to 23,700 ft.

Despite the 7,000-ft. plunge, the crew seemed to regain control. But moments later, they were reporting that the plane had a jammed stabilizer and that they were having "trouble maintaining altitude." When it was clear there were no circuit breakers to disable the stabilizer, the crew requested permission to make an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport. They told air controllers they wanted to remain over water as they prepared for landing.

The Flight 261 disaster aggravates questions that have been directed at Alaska Airlines. It is the subject of a federal investigation into alleged falsification of maintenance records in its Oakland, Calif., facility. The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed fining the airline $44,000 and revoking certification of several mechanics.

But any action by the FAA has been on hold since an Oakland grand jury began investigating similar charges. The inquiry involves several Alaska Airlines employees suspected of "pencil whipping"--falsifying, in the parlance of the industry--documents to indicate that maintenance checks had been done on some MD-80s when they were not. According to sources close to the investigation, the inquiry was widened recently after federal investigators suspected that more planes had not been properly checked. There has been no suggestion that the plane that crashed last week was part of any investigation. But the question remains: Was there some problem with the plane, particularly its horizontal stabilizer, that the airline should have caught?

Alaska Airlines insists the investigation of its maintenance practices is aimed only at a specific kind of final check that is "above and beyond" what is required by the plane's manufacturers. CEO John Kelly insists that in no way did any of the alleged missteps affect passenger safety. "My daughter flies on my airline; my wife flies on my airline," says Kelly. "No one is trying to get away with anything."

Aviation watchdogs have been baring their teeth in the aftermath of two high-profile crashes in 1996--ValuJet in Florida and TWA off the coast of New York. Regulators have been increasingly willing to bring criminal charges against airlines and their employees for negligence and deliberate disregard of safety guidelines. Federal prosecutors won a criminal conviction of aircraft-maintenance company SabreTech in December in connection with the hazardous material that allegedly caused the ValuJet crash, which killed 110 people. The same month, American Airlines pleaded guilty to criminal charges--and paid $8 million in fines--for illegal handling of pesticides and other hazardous materials at Miami International Airport. "If felony and prison haven't been in the professional vocabulary of my clients to date," says Douglas Fellman, a Washington lawyer who defends aviation companies, "they belong there now."

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