Mechanics defend 1997 decision not to replace part on doomed plane

Mechanics say crash investigation has tarnished their reputation

Posted: Monday, June 19, 2000

SEATTLE -- Two senior Alaska Airlines mechanics say they did nothing wrong when they overturned a colleague's 1997 directive to replace the jackscrew assembly on a Boeing MD-83 that crashed off the California coast more than two years later, killing 88 people.

In interviews with The Seattle Times published Sunday, Ron Hensel and Ron Abzell said they and their employer have been unfairly tarnished by a federal criminal investigation focusing on whether problems at Alaska's Oakland, Calif., maintenance facility led to the Jan. 31 crash of Flight 261.

Work on the ill-fated jet ``was all done correctly,'' Abzell said in the interviews conducted Wednesday and Thursday in Oakland.

The two men -- acting on the advice of their attorneys -- have declined to provide statements to the FBI. They spoke with the newspaper after a fellow Alaska mechanic, John Liotine, questioned their actions during a Tuesday interview on ``Dateline NBC.''

Liotine said he ordered the plane's jackscrew assembly replaced on Sept. 27, 1997, because he believed it was too worn.

Liotine labeled ``suspicious'' the decision by mechanics on the next shift to conduct new tests -- tests that prompted overturning of his order.

Hensel and Abzell, who oversaw those re-tests, said they were done properly. Both men are inspectors, who oversee and approve the work of lower-level mechanics.

Failure of the jackscrew assembly is a focus of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the cause of the Jan. 31 crash that killed 88 people.

The FBI is trying to determine whether the re-tests were manipulated to get the jet back into service without delays. The agency is also investigating whether there was a deliberate effort to keep Liotine from finding out his 1997 order had not been carried out. According to federal officials close to the investigation, agents are studying a shift-turnover log that provides a running account of mechanics' work, the Times said.

The September 1997 log contains Liotine's directive to replace the part and a subsequent entry suggesting his order had been ``complied with,'' the Times quoted the officials as saying.

Investigators are trying to determine what ``complied with'' means but have been hampered because attorneys for those involved in the re-tests have advised them not to talk without immunity from prosecution, the officials said.

Alaska spokesman Greg Witter said a company attorney found nothing unusual. The log spells out all the procedures, including the decision not to replace the jackscrew assembly, he said.

In the Tuesday interview, Liotine said he didn't learn that the jackscrew assembly hadn't been replaced until after the crash.

Hensel said he still doesn't know why Liotine ordered the replacement of the jackscrew, a decision Alaska has called ``incorrect.''

``It was dumb,'' Hensel said, adding, ``It's everybody's job to stay within guidelines of the work cards.''

And he noted that it still isn't known whether the jackscrew assembly, which helps control up-and-down aircraft movement, caused the crash.

Liotine ordered the assembly replaced after his team of mechanics found 0.040 inches of deterioration on the part. Any measurement above that would have required automatic replacement, but Liotine ordered the part replaced anyway.

That order was scratched out and replaced with a directive to re-evaluate, according to officials who have seen the paperwork.

Hensel said he took the lead in re-examining Liotine's decision because he wanted to confirm the 0.040 reading. In six re-tests, he said, ``We got a true, actual reading of 0.033.''

He said he initially couldn't explain why there was a difference of 7/1000ths of an inch.

Since the crash, he said, Boeing has told Alaska's mechanics to hold the jackscrew's gimbal nut to prevent it from turning while performing the wear test.

If the nut turns slightly during the test, Hensel said, the reading is likely to be higher. He said he believes that might have affected the accuracy of the reading by Liotine's team.

Hensel said he also has come to believe there may have been a problem in the manufacture of Flight 261's jackscrew assembly. The NTSB is studying that issue as well, the TImes reported.

The plane had been sent to the Oakland facility in 1997 for a major inspection known as a ``C check.'' The plane was due to be returned to service Sept. 30, 1997, but wasn't released until Oct. 2.

Hensel and Abzell scoffed at the notion that mechanics were under pressure to avoid replacing the assembly. Hensel described the people on his team as ``fanatics'' with long records of high-quality work.

Liotine is also a fanatic, Hensel said, but ``in the wrong way.'' He said Liotine ``went to his own drum'' and ``had his own way of doing things.''

Liotine did not respond to Times requests for an interview.

Liotine went to the Federal Aviation Administration in late 1998 with allegations that Alaska managers were signing off for work that wasn't done or they weren't authorized to approve.

The FAA has proposed a $44,000 fine against Alaska and the revocation of the mechanics' licenses of three Alaska managers. Alaska and the managers have appealed, and a final resolution is pending. Hensel, Abzell and Liotine are not among those whose licenses were proposed suspended, airline spokesman Lou Cancelmi said Sunday.

Hensel led a successful effort to recall Liotine as president of the local mechanics union last year.

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