SEATTLE - The criminal investigation into the crash of an Alaska Airlines jet is focusing on mechanics' decision not to replace a part that was wearing out in 1997 and is suspected of causing last January's disaster, The Seattle Times reported today.
The jackscrew assembly had been tested repeatedly by a maintenance crew in Oakland, Calif., and found to be nearly worn out but was put back into service after a second crew retested it a few days later, the newspaper said, citing airline records and federal officials close to the investigation.
Flight 261 crashed Jan. 31 into the Pacific Ocean just off Los Angeles, en route to San Francisco from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, killing 88 people.
The pilots had reported problems with the Boeing MD-83's horizontal stabilizer, a flap on the tail that is tilted by the jackscrew assembly to determine the pitch of the aircraft.
The airline previously portrayed the second set of wear tests as routine, without noting that the original order to replace the part was based on multiple tests, the Times said.
Also, the airline and National Transportation Safety Board had previously reported the reversal occurred within hours, rather than days. They now acknowledge that account was mistaken, the Times said.
Both factors are significant because federal agents are trying to determine whether the later set of tests was legitimate and whether it was manipulated by company workers to get the plane back into service without further inspections, the newspaper said.