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Special Event

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: NTSB Holds Briefing on Continuing Investigation

Aired February 3, 2000 - 1:16 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going now to Washington to the headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board. You see the cockpit voice recorder that was recovered, last evening, as a result of the pinger that led the recovery operations directly to this recorder, which contains the tape from what went on from the three microphones picking up activity in the cockpit of the plane in the final moments of that flight, seven minutes between the time the air traffic control got an indication that there was a problem on board the aircraft with a stabilizer until the plane went down.

JIM HALL, NTSB CHAIRMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce with me today is Doctor Bernard Loeb, who is head of our Office of Aviation Safety, and Doctor Vern Ellingstad, who is head of our Office of Research and Engineering.

Let me begin by saying that of course our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of Flight 261, as they have been since we were notified of the tragedy.

I plan to leave for Los Angeles, this evening, to meet with the families over the next few days, as well as with our on-scene investigators who have been working around the clock.

I also want to think everyone, the United States Coast Guard, the state and local authorities, the countless volunteers who assisted in the 41-hour search-and-rescue operation. I'd like to recognize the efforts of the National Transportation Safety Board investigators who are on-scene in California and had been there since we began this investigation. I especially want to acknowledge the leadership that is being provided by member John Hammerschmidt and investigator in charge Dick Rodriguez. And I want to acknowledge the work of our Office of Aviation Safety and the Office of Research and Engineering staff here in Washington, D.C. They have literally been working 24 hours a day in support of this investigation attempting to read out the many pieces of important recorded information that have been furnished to us over the past 48 hours.

What you see on the table in front of Doctor Loeb and Doctor Ellingstad is the cockpit voice recorder from Alaska Airlines Flight 261. This recorder, of course, was recovered by the United States Navy and was flown to the National Transportation Safety Board headquarters, last evening. In addition, we have the tapes made of the conversation between Alaska Airlines maintenance base and the flight crew of Flight 261.

I want to express my appreciation for the excellent service that is again being rendered by the United States Navy in finding this cockpit voice recorder so quickly.

This morning, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted an initial audition of the accident's flight's cockpit voice recorder. The cockpit voice recorder functioned well, the quality of the recording is good and there are slightly more than 30 minutes of data.

As the recording began, the flight crew was discussing an existing problem with the airplane's stabilizer trim. The flight crew decided to divert to Los Angeles International Airport. The airplane's out-of-trim condition became worse as the crew attempted to diagnose or correct the problem. The crew had difficulty controlling the airplane's tendency to pitch nose down. The airplane descended but the crew was able to arrest the descent. The crew continued troubleshooting and preparing for the -- preparing the airplane for landing. Then control was suddenly lost. The crew made references to being inverted that are consistent with the witness statements to that affect. The Safety Board will be convening a cockpit voice recorder group tomorrow to begin a transcript of the recorded information.

The search for the second recorder, the flight data reporter continues off the California coast at this time. As had already been reported, the pinger -- I'll ask Doctor Ellingstad if he would please hold up a pinger -- was detached from the recorder. Recorders involved in Alaska Airlines 261, EgyptAir 990, TWA 800 and the ValuJet crash in Miami and several other accidents were built to an earlier standard that did not have the pinger bolted to the crash enclosure. This permitted the pinger to become detached from the recorder due to crash forces.

I have expressed to Doctor Ellingstad my significant concern in regard to the repeated occurrence of these pingers being detached from the recorders, and I am confident that the recommendations will be forthcoming from the staff to the members of the National Transportation Safety Board concerning this important matter. As we all know, millions of taxpayer dollars are involved in these searches, and this is just a very unacceptable situation.

There is another important point I would like to make related to this investigation. There have been a number of stories in the media regarding the accident aircraft and mechanical or other problems it may have experienced prior to the accident. These stories typically cite undisclosed sources. This is truly unfortunate. Information relevant to this accident should be immediately brought to the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board rather than filtered through the press. To do so otherwise is, quite frankly, irresponsible and does a grave disservice to the victims of Flight 261, their families and to the safety of the traveling public. This investigation, like all the board investigations, is important to our continued safety of our traveling public. I urge anyone with information that can aid our investigation to share that information first with the investigators responsible for finding out what happened. As you probably know, the National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating an in-flight occurrence involves another McDonnell- Douglas 83 aircraft that occurred yesterday morning near Phoenix, Arizona. In that incident, American Airlines Flight 1583 was about 20 minutes outside of Phoenix after departing Dallas-Fort Worth at about 8:20 a.m. in the morning. The pilot reported a mechanical problem. The plane was at 13,000 feet at the time. The pilot declared an emergency and returned to Phoenix Airport and landed normally at 9:03 a.m. The plane carried 59 and a crew of six. The error lines maintenance crew recorded -- reported the problem to the Board investigators as a stabilizer trim jam. The 46-parameter flight data recorder from the incident flight arrived at the National Transportation Board's laboratories early Thursday morning, about 12:45 a.m. The flight data recorder was successfully downloaded, all 63 hours of information.

A preliminary evaluation of the data on that recorder indicates the following: First, the data recorded for the parameters of airspeed, elevator position and stabilizer position are consistent with the pilots' statement that the stabilizer trim was unresponsive or intermittent during a portion of the flight. Number two, portions of the stabilizer -- position of the stabilizer trim is recorded on the flight data recorder but pilot trim inputs are not. Third, the stabilizer positions stayed within the normal operating range during the flight. And fourth, further analysis of the flight data recorder data in conjunction with additional pilot interviews are continuing at this time.

American Airlines removed and replaced the stabilizer actuator following the incident. National Transportation Safety Board personnel are quarantining the removed parts pending further investigation.

Our interest in this incident is, of course, heightened because of possible similarities between this incident and the one experienced by the crew of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. Let me stress, however, that we cannot say if there are any common elements in the two events until we have additional information.

This is a very important investigation. Information is coming in at a very rapid rate, which I am grateful for, and I again acknowledge and appreciate the work of headquarters office here in Washington in working overnight and reading out the information that I just provided for you.

I'll be glad to take a few questions at this time.


HALL: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Chairman Hall, how are your resources holding up? EgyptAir is not even resolved yet and now you've got this.

HALL: Well, we have -- I've asked Doctor Loeb and Doctor Ellingstad, and we have special -- we worked especially hard to ensure that we have -- are segregating our employees in terms of the responsibilities on these various investigations and using our resources efficiently and effectively, and I can report to you it has not impacted the investigations.

QUESTION: Can you hold up the pin, please, again? Thank you.

HALL: This is the pinger. We might show where the bolts are attached that were not attached on this particular recorder. And this is the EgyptAir, as well.

DR. VERN ELLINGSTAD, OFFICE OF RESEARCH AND ENGINEERING: This face place is the same model of recorder as -- as the Alaska Airlines flight data recorder, the one that is still missing. In this case, the pinger bracket is bolted just to this light casing, and that's why it came loose. The current standards require the pingers to be bolted to the crash enclosure.

QUESTION; How much of the damage to this box is from having to open it from its earlier damaged state, and how much, you know, actually hurt -- happened on impact?

HALL: Well, I'll ask Doctor Ellingstad and Doctor Loeb has anything else to respond to that.

Why don't you do it behind the microphones so they get your voice.

ELLINGSTAD: Most of this damage that you see here we caused in the lab when we cut the -- the dust cover away and extracted the crash kits. But the recorder itself was in good shape.

QUESTION: Is there any reason at this stage that you should pause and examine this whole stabilizer (OFF-MIKE)?

HALL: Doctor Loeb can comment on that.

DR. BERNARD LOEB, OFFICE OF AVIATION SAFETY: I think at this time it's premature to conclude that there's any kind of a systemic issue at all.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to reevaluate at this point the emergency procedures (OFF-MIKE)?

LOEB: That's certainly something we will be looking at very carefully. This flight crew did go through and address emergency procedures. We're going to have to look at what they've done and what may need to be done differently, if anything at all.

QUESTION: Chairman Hall, how would you rate Alaska Airlines' responsiveness to your needs, you know, as you investigate this? Have they been fully forthcoming, do you think, and are you -- how would you just rate that in general?

HALL: Well, my understanding, unless to the contrary, they've been very responsive. As everyone in the general public knows, this has been a tremendous loss for Alaska Airlines. I think there was 30- plus non-revenue employees that were either employees of Alaska Airlines or Horizon Air that were on the aircraft. And I know it's a difficult time for them to be grieving for their own loss, as well as trying to cooperate with this investigation.

But to date, I have been very pleased with the responsiveness we have received from Alaska Airlines. And I have been especially pleased with the attention that I have, and the comments I have read from the families. And of course, I am going to meet with them this evening. But the comments I have read in the media from the families to the attention that the Alaska Air is giving to their needs and concerns.

So this is a difficult time for everybody. This is an important investigation and I appreciate Alaska Air, as well as all of the other authorities in the California area, and with the federal, state and local government that are assisting us and responding appropriately.

QUESTION: Mr. Chairman, could the crew's preparations for landing somehow have precipitated the final, sudden loss of control.

HALL: Well, that, as I think Dr. Loeb said, all of those questions will be answered in due time. That would be premature to respond to that at this time.

I will take...

QUESTION: Is that what you are focusing on?

HALL: We are, obviously, any time you have a major accident investigation of this nature. We don't rule any issue out. We look at all of the items.

I will take one more question.

QUESTION: How long had the crew lost control -- I mean, regained control before it -- before the problems reoccurred. What kind of time period was that?

HALL: Seven to nine minutes, according to Doctor Loeb.

I want to thank everyone for your attendance at this press conference and for the media's overall responsible coverage of the -- of this accident investigation. Thank you very much.

WATERS: NTSB Director Jim Hall bringing us up to date on the -- what he calls -- the rapid rate of information collecting in association with the crash of Alaskan Airlines Flight 261. The cockpit voice recorder you saw on the table there was recovered last evening. Still unclaimed is the flight data recorder because of a detached pinger, The pinger is separate from the actual flight data recorder. That will take a little bit more time. But of course, the investigators are eager to get their hand on that bit of information.

On the cockpit voice recorder, we got a general overview of what is on it. It began with the crew's acknowledging a problem and decision to abort to Los Angeles International Airport on that flight to San Francisco.

We also are getting information that on the tape the crew mentions the problem is getting worse as they go. There was about seven to nine minutes of this stabilizer problem recorded on that cockpit voice recorder, apparently.

The crew was able to arrest descent, and then got into what is being referred to as being inverted. We have our aviation correspondent Carl Rochelle with us. What does "being inverted" mean, Carl?

I'm sorry, Carl, we have some audio problems with you. That is one question to be answered. The crew acknowledged being inverted. Other witnesses said the plane was inverted. I guess we can assume what that means, but am eager to hear the answer to that question.

Also on the -- OK, Carl, I guess we got you back, being inverted?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: OK, here I am counting, Lou, that is one way to tell when you are on the air.

All right, let me take you, inverted literally, quite literally, means rolling upside down. The interesting thing from that cockpit voice recorder was that they had a problem that began to deteriorate, it got worse, and eventually the airplane was apparently jammed in a nose down situation, going down, and they could not control it. It went out of control and into the water. Literally, the airplane was flying itself, taking it where it wanted to go, Lou.

WATERS: All right, we have another question here about the MD-80 in Phoenix yesterday. There seems to be an air of immediacy about connecting the flight data from both the MD-80 and that of flight 261.

Jim Hall said, apparently, according to the flight data recorder, the stabilizer trim was unresponsive in that flight yesterday, which managed to get back safely to Phoenix. What more do you know about that?

ROCHELLE: The difference, Lou, is where the trim stabilizer jammed. If it jammed in a neutral situation, then it simply means that the crew of the aircraft had to use extra muscle power to fly the aircraft in. You would have to hold it in a nose-up attitude when you wanted to climb; holds it in a nose-down attitude.

One of the things that that stabilizer trim lets you do is trim off the control pressures so you can push the control yoke where you want it, and it will stay there with little attention from you, from you the pilot.

If it jams in a neutral position, in the center, then it simply means you have to do it the old arm-strong method, by pushing on it.

But if it jams nose up or jams nose down, it can cause you to stall the airplane if it jams nose up; if it jams nose down, it can cause you to get out of control, to descend. That sounds like what very well may have happened with the Alaska Airlines plane. The American Airlines plane crew were quite lucky in that the place that jammed or became unresponsive was sort of in the center, in a neutral position, and let them be able to hand fly the airplane and take it in.

But there is a concern that it may be the same problem, it just jammed in a different place, and that is one of the things they are clearly going to look very carefully at, Lou.

WATERS: Premature, they say, in answer to all the questions about, is it possible that the MD-80 series might be grounded because of this stabilizer thing we are hearing about. What do you think?

ROCHELLE: It is premature, Lou, to ground an entire fleet from a couple of incidents. But what they will do, and I think Boeing is going to -- Boeing, the company that actually bought McDonnell Douglas a few years ago, or merged with them, is going to be talking about it on background to us a little later on, explaining some of the mechanics of the stabilizer.

But surely, depending on what they learned from when they tear that assembly apart, because people concentrated on Hall saying that they had taken the flight data recorder, you also noticed that he said that they took the trim assembly, the units that make the trim go up and down, they are going to take that and tear it apart and look at it, and see what caused the problem. Then they will go back and look at other airliners, and see if that have the same problem in it.

It may not be a grounding of the aircraft, but what it may be, depending on what they find, is: OK, let's stop these airplanes and take a very quick look at what we see back there, and see if this situation is replicated in other aircraft.

Hall is quite right. It is too early to say that this is a mistake, a problem or a error, an error, a malfunction, a mechanical problem that happens throughout the series. But it is something that they are looking very carefully at Lou.

WATERS: Can you give us a quick idea of what Jim Hall was referring to when he was speaking of irresponsibility reports about this flight 261, filtering through the media? Is the NTSB hearing first-hand reports on television and through the media?

ROCHELLE: Lou, I think what was driving that, there was a report in a Seattle newspaper yesterday that the airline had experienced some mechanic problems in its way into Puerto Vallarta. And that was sort of amplified by, when the National Transportation Safety Board here said they were freezing to crew to talk to them about it.

Well, they didn't confirm the report that was in the Seattle paper. They did freeze the crew, which is sort of normal procedure. And that gave the story, if you will, a life of its own. But the Seattle paper had apparently alleged that someone in the crew had somehow had told them that there was a problem with mechanical devices on the airplane going in. Now, I talked to some officials at Alaska Airlines on background, and they say they never had any indication that there was a problem with that aircraft going in, or a problem with it anywhere on the way down to Puerto Vallarta, that flight before it took off to come back up.

The concern was that because of the way you deal with information, they were not able to go out and, on the record, say: We don't have a problem with that aircraft because it was under investigation. But on background, they: No problem there.

And that's what Hall was talking about because suddenly it got a life of its own, the idea that this airplane had some problem, landed, and the crew took off after it having had problems, and then flew up this area. That's what he's talking about.

WATERS: All right, Carl Rochelle at NTSB headquarters -- No, you are at Port Hueneme, you are out in California.

ROCHELLE: Port Hueneme, yes.

WATERS: Jim Hall was at headquarters, he is now headed out your way.


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