Maintenance entries questioned

Log of key part on doomed Alaska Airlines plane scrutinized

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2000

SEATTLE - Questionable entries have been found in maintenance records for an Alaska Airlines MD-83 that crashed Jan. 31, The Seattle Times reported Friday.

Quoting a high-ranking federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the morning daily reported that the notations were found on a work card showing names, dates and remarks concerning work involving an inspection of the plane's horizontal stabilizer jackscrew in 1997.

The jackscrew is a central focus of investigations into the crash of Flight 261 in which all 88 people aboard died off the Southern California coast. The device controls the tilt of the stabilizer, a mechanism in the tail used to direct the nose of the plane up or down in flight.

A criminal investigation is being conducted by the FBI and the federal Department of Transportation's inspector general, and the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a separate safety investigation to determine the cause of the crash.

In addition to the crash probes, Alaska Airlines maintenance practices are under investigation by a federal grand jury in San Francisco and the Federal Aviation Administration just completed a ``white-glove'' inspection of the West Coast carrier's maintenance facilities.

One question investigators are trying to answer is whether test results on the jackscrew were doctored so the plane could be returned to passenger service as quickly as possible, the Times reported.

Alaska Airlines spokesman Greg Witter said all company records on the plane have been turned over to the NTSB.

``Until their investigation is complete, it is inappropriate for me or anyone else -particularly those who cower behind the veil of anonymity -to comment one way or another,'' Witter said.

He added that getting the plane back into service was ``irrelevant, because we don't put planes into service unless they're safe - period.''

In an inspection at the company's heavy maintenance shop in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 29, 1997, the Times reported, mechanics found the jackscrew assembly - a part costing $30,000 to $70,000 - too close to failing wear standards and planned to replace it.

Instead, they decided to leave it in place after performing five more tests the next day, the report said.

The plane was within days of being released to service and another jackscrew might not have been immediately available, the Times quoted investigators as saying.

In a previous statement, company officials said the first test indicated the jackscrew was within allowable limits prescribed by Boeing, the plane's manufacturer; the later tests showed there had been less wear, and Boeing's instructions say the measurements should be taken several times to ensure valid results.

``This test was rechecked five additional times to ensure consistency of results and each time the results indicated the endplay was well within standards,'' the airline said.

Two Alaska inspectors contacted by the Times said they were interviewed by FBI agents about their role in the tests. One said nothing improper was done and the other would not comment.

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