Tail portion of downed jet found

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2000

PORT HUENEME, Calif. - Investigators have located the tail of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, including its horizontal stabilizer, suspected as the cause of the plane's crash.

A Navy submersible sent up video images of the tail, a piece of the fuselage with four windows, several other pieces up to 6 feet wide and numerous smaller pieces, said John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The parts were in about 650 feet of water 10 miles off the California coast where the MD-83 crashed Monday, killing all 88 people aboard.

NTSB Chairman James Hall announced the discoveries today.

``Once we have been able to complete mapping of the debris field, those are one of the first pieces of structure we will attempt to bring to the surface,'' he said today on ABC's ``Good Morning America.''

Hammerschmidt declined to say whether searchers found any bodies, some of which are believed trapped by the debris.

Searchers recovered the plane's flight data recorder Thursday, not far from where the cockpit voice recorder was found a day earlier. Investigators hope data from the ``black boxes'' will help them determine the cause of the crash.

Friends and relatives of the victims gathered Thursday on a beach facing the Santa Barbara Channel for a private memorial.

A few mourners roamed the shore alone, some clustered in small groups and others waded into the surf. They gathered as a group inside the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station.

The cause of the crash has not been determined, but investigators have disclosed much detail about the flight bound from Mexico to San Francisco and Seattle.

Citing the voice recorder, the NTSB said the pilots were discussing a problem with the horizontal stabilizer at least 30 minutes before the crash. The stabilizer, a wing on the tail of an aircraft, is designed to adjust - or trim - the up-or-down angle of an aircraft's nose.

At one point, according to Hall, the pilots did regain control of Flight 261 - and then it was ``suddenly lost.''

Investigators are looking into the possibility that the pilots put the plane into its fatal dive by following proper procedures for correcting a stabilizer problem, the Los Angeles Times reported today, citing NTSB sources.

While the NTSB was expected to begin making a transcript of the cockpit conversation today, the data recorder, which tracks electrical and mechanical operations during a flight, could reveal whether the stabilizer problem was what brought the plane down.

``That will tell the tale,'' said William Waldock, associate director for the Center for Aerospace Safety Education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Contrary to earlier reports, there were no signs of mechanical trouble with the plane on its two previous flights - from Seattle to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Hammerschmidt said.

He also discussed interviews conducted with Alaska Airlines mechanics in Seattle and Los Angeles. They described helping the pilots troubleshoot a ``runaway stabilizer,'' which forced the plane's nose down.

At one point, the pilots asked a Los Angeles mechanic if there were any hidden circuit breakers to cut off power to the stabilizer. That suggests they already had shut off one set of circuit breakers - a standard remedy for a runaway stabilizer, also known as runaway trim.

Jammed or out-of-control horizontal stabilizers have led to at least a half-dozen emergency landings but never a crash of a commercial airplane, federal records show.

In most aircraft, including the MD-83, a jammed stabilizer can be overridden by moving elevators attached to its trailing edge and controlled by pulling forward or backward on the yoke in the cockpit. If it jammed at an extreme position, the pilots must exert more pressure on the yoke but still should be able to maintain control.

Though stabilizer problems are rare, regulators last May gave airlines 18 months to inspect hinges connecting parts of the tail for signs of corrosion. An error during manufacture can cause the hinges to rust more easily.

The Alaska Airlines jet that crashed had not yet undergone the inspection, but 10 of the MD-80s in the fleet did and showed no unusual corrosion, said airline spokesman David Marriott. Records on other airlines' fleets were not immediately available.

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