Lack of grease, maintenance cited in crash of 261

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

SEATTLE - A lack of grease, maintenance practices and a design flaw led to the January 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that killed 88 people, according to a draft report by federal safety investigators.

Parts of the report, prepared by staff at the National Transportation Safety Board, were read to The Seattle Times by an unnamed official close to the investigation for a story in Friday editions.

The MD-80 jet crashed off Southern California while traveling from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle.

According to the Times, the report blames "insufficient lubrication" for excessive wear and the eventual failure of the jet's jackscrew mechanism. The jackscrew assembly helps move the plane's stabilizer.

The draft report also describes how Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, with the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration, adopted a less frequent schedule of lubricating and inspecting the jackscrew mechanism, which may have led to excessive wear.

Alaska has since revamped its maintenance policies and the FAA has stepped up its oversight.

The report also cites the design of the MD-80 series, built by McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing bought in 1997. The planes should have had a back-up method to avoid the "catastrophic effects" of a jackscrew failure, the Times reported.

Among other recommendations, the draft report calls for Chicago-based Boeing to modify the MD-80 series of planes as well as a similar model, the 717, to add backup systems for such a failure, potentially affecting as many as 1,400 jets.

The report also urges the FAA to take more control over airlines' decisions to change maintenance intervals; order stricter protocols for lubricating aircraft components; instruct pilots to land immediately once a jackscrew problem occurs rather than try to fix the problem in flight, as Flight 261 had; and conduct another major inspection of Alaska Airlines' maintenance operations similar to one conducted in April 2000.

NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said board members have not reviewed the report yet and told The Times the board may make substantial changes. Alaska Airlines and Boeing declined comment Friday. They said they had not seen the draft report and stressed it was not final.

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