PORT HUENEME, Calif. - Moments before Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean, the jetliner turned upside down as pilots desperately tried to regain control, federal investigators said today.
The account came from an initial review of the cockpit voice recorder, which was recovered Wednesday from the debris of the MD-83 on the ocean floor. The tape showed the pilots struggled with their controls during the flight's final 30 minutes.
``The crew made references to being inverted that are consistent with the witness statements to that effect,'' Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a news conference in Washington, D.C.
Eighty-eight people including five Alaskans were aboard the jetliner when it began losing altitude off the coast of California, then corkscrewed in a nose-dive into the Pacific. The crew reported having problems with a part of the tail control, called the horizontal stabilizer, that keeps the plane level.
Remote operated underwater vehicles today continued searching the ocean floor for the flight data recorder, the companion box that will provide details on the plane's mechanical operation.
The locator device for a second flight data recorder was found during the night but was no longer attached to the device, Navy Capt. Terry Labrecque said. Investigators believe they will still find it.
The NTSB has also begun analyzing a recording of a radio call from Flight 261's pilots to a Seattle maintenance crew about the stabilizer problem minutes before the crash.
Investigators said witnesses saw no signs of fire or smoke when the jet hit the water in one piece Monday.
As the plane passed over Anacapa Island, just off the coast, a witness heard several popping sounds and watched the jet turn and hit the water, NTSB member John Hammerschmidt said.
``The aircraft was twisting, flying erratically, nose rocking,'' he told reporters. He also said other pilots nearby described the plane as ``tumbling, spinning, nosedown, continuous roll, corkscrewing and inverted.''
Ships with side-scan sonar equipment that can make detailed maps of debris on the ocean floor began searching the crash site today, and two other remote-control submersibles were en route.
The wreckage is well below the 300-foot safety limit for divers - and most of the bodies are believed pinned in the debris on the bottom of the ocean. Searchers have recovered the remains of only four passengers.
Investigators expected choppier waters as a light storm moved toward Southern California today. The beaches were mostly clear of debris, but rough seas could begin to wash ashore more remnants of the craft.
The airline and Red Cross officials today planned to take friends and relatives of the victims to the coast near the crash site. The sand near Port Hueneme is already the site of makeshift memorials.
The MD-83 jetliner was headed from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle when it crashed.
Federal investigators are also looking into a Wednesday incident where a jammed horizontal stabilizer forced an American Airlines MD-80 to return to Phoenix 20 minutes after it took off for Dallas. The plane is part of the same series of aircraft as the Alaska MD83 that crashed.
The Arizona Republic reported today that another Alaska Airlines flight made an emergency landing at Fairbanks International Airport last year because of stabilizer problems.
In that case, the pilot of an MD82 carrying 138 passengers and crew had trouble getting the plane's nose to rise on takeoff, and the pilot made an emergency landing.
Federal investigators were having the flight data recorder from the American Airlines plane sent to them, said Phil Frame, a spokesman for the NTSB in Washington.
Frame said he knew of no link between the American Airlines incident and the Alaska Airlines investigation, but ``it may have piqued their interest.''
But NTSB officials said it was too early to draw any conclusions.
``I think at this time it's premature,'' said Bernard S. Loeb, the NTSB's director of aviation safety.
On Wednesday, The Seattle Times reported the plane that crashed this week had horizontal stabilizer problems on its trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the leg before the ill-fated flight bound for San Francisco and Seattle.
Hall said today he did not think such reports were ``exactly correct. . . . What we are doing this morning in California, we will be interviewing the crew of the previous flight.''
Airline spokesman Jack Evans in Seattle also denied the report: ``We stand by what we said earlier this week, which is that we're not aware of any maintenance anomalies with this aircraft.''