Why didn't crew land the plane

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Why didn't crew land the plane?

Issue raised of why pilots fought Flight 261's problem for so long

Tuesday, February 15, 2000


Second-guesses started even as investigators began pulling debris and bodies from the Pacific's cool waters to piece together the final moments of Alaska Airlines Flight 261.

The flight crew was aware of mechanical problems in the aircraft's stabilizer. They knew, too, that their airplane was within landing range of several airports.

Yet they chose to continue flying toward their next scheduled stop, San Francisco, even as they discussed the stabilizer problem for at least a half hour with Alaska personnel on the ground.

After the crash, aviation experts, bolstered by hindsight, quietly and reluctantly started questioning the crew's decision to trouble-shoot rather than touch down.

"No pilot would ever jeopardize his passengers just to make a flight schedule," said Bill Waldock, associate administrator of the Center for Aerospace Safety and Education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

"In hindsight, though, it probably would have been better to put the plane down sooner."

Then yesterday the quiet ponderings gave way to loud allegations of negligence as a Chicago-based lawyer, representing the family of a marketing executive lost in 261's fatal dive, filed what is believed to be the first lawsuit stemming from the Jan. 31 crash.

In court papers and in a telephone interview, aviation litigator Robert Clifford contended the ill-fated jetliner was in range of at least nine commercial or military airports where its pilot could have landed and possibly averted disaster.

Instead, Clifford said, the flight crew grappled for several minutes to control and correct the faltering aircraft -- a decision fatal for 88 people when the plane plummeted into the Pacific.

"I mean, hell, why didn't they land in San Diego?" Clifford asked yesterday. "They were in an emergency situation and instead of landing they were trouble-shooting in the air."

Citing an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Alaska Airlines officials declined comment on the lawsuit.

Alaska spokesman Lou Cancelmi said details of the plane's flight plan, which included contingencies for landing at alternative sites in case of emergency, were not available.

"I really don't know if there are nine different airports in that area or not, but because of the investigation, we can't really comment on that right now," Cancelmi said.

The MD-83's stabilizer problems apparently began not long after the plane took off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was in the air about two hours and forty minutes before it crashed.

Aviation experts say the pilots must have been aware of problems because they flew manually for most of the trip, rather than use the autopilot.

The stabilizer is moved or trimmed to keep the plane's nose from pitching up or down. When a plane is properly trimmed, the pilots don't need to frequently push or pull on the control columns to keep the plane stable.

The plane's flight data recorder indicates the stabilizer was never trimmed in the nose-up position during the cruise portion of the flight, which experts say would have been highly unusual. On a typical commercial flight, as many as 75 or more trim changes are made to keep a plane stable.

Flight 261 was well past Los Angeles when the balky stabilizer suddenly jammed and the plane dived about 7,000 feet from its cruising altitude before the crew could regain control.

By then, the pilots had been talking with Alaska personnel on the ground about the stabilizer problem for at least 19 minutes, based on a review of the 31 minutes of tape on the cockpit voice recorder.

A jammed stabilizer is rare but not unheard of -- pilots are trained to land with the plane in that condition.

Aviation experts and airline pilots are reluctant to second-guess the experienced crew of Flight 261. They point out that Capt. Ted Thompson and First Officer William Tansky would have had no way of knowing that a stabilizer problem they thought they could manage would suddenly turn deadly.

But as the investigation into the cause of the crash continues to unfold, some experts have questioned whether the pilots should have spent as much time as they did attempting to troubleshoot the problem, rather than simply land as quickly as possible.

"The question is, how serious a problem did the crew think they had?" said Waldock of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Very serious, according to lawyer Clifford.

"They simply should have landed at the first signs of trouble," he said.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Chicago, names Alaska Airlines and aircraft manufacturers McDonnell Douglas and Boeing as defendants.

Brought on behalf of Julie Friedmann, 42, of Round Lake Beach, Ill., wife of Allen M. Friedmann, 48, who perished in the crash, the lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in damages for herself and her husband's three children, Brett, 20; Rachel, 17, and Jonah, 5.

Aside from claims that the airline's flight crew should immediately have landed the plane at the first sign of trouble, the nine-page lawsuit alleges that McDonnell Douglas, which manufactured the plane, and Boeing, which later bought McDonnell Douglas and its assets, are negligent for improperly assembling and servicing the aircraft.

Clifford said yesterday that he represents family members of four other Fight 261 victims who also intend to sue.

The firms that made the plane's parts also will likely be named as defendants, he said.

Like Clifford, Dan Gellert, a retired Eastern Airlines pilot who lives in Sequim, contends the crew should have landed sooner.

"They were already by Los Angeles and still playing with the trim system," he said. "They should have landed the plane."

Still, two Alaska Airlines pilots interviewed for this story said it is wrong to second-guess Thompson and Tansky.

"We can't possibly know what kinds of problems they were trying to deal with," one said. Neither wanted their names used.

"This issue of stabilizer problems and the decision-making response of the flight crew will be the focus of a lot of attention in this investigation," said Waldock, who has assisted various agencies in investigations of plane crashes.

"The key question that will need to be answered is 'when do you deal with a problem in the air and when do you decide just to go ahead and land the plane as soon as possible?'"

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), February 15, 2000


Well shoot, what good would it due to land? It was a y2k problem; they were doomed from the get-go. We're all doomed! Or should this thread be labeled OT?

-- (nemesis@awol.com), February 15, 2000.

Like all ambulance chasers, It is a helluva lot easier to see things from the vantage point of a 3,000 dollar leather office recliner, many days after the event than it is when the airplane isn't behaving and all you are trying to do is get it together again. Or when the rain and sleet are runing down your neck, the car is in an unstable position, and there isn't any aparent way to extricate without repositioning the car, with your partner inside holding c-spine stabilization...


-- Chuck, a night driver (rienzoo@en.com), February 15, 2000.

The reason the pilots didn't land? They weren't sure the plane was in a "landable" condition! In other words, the plane was so compromised at that point due to the horizontal stabilizer that the force of landing it may have caused the plane to break apart. Any of us could imagine how many fatalities there would have been with a jet crashing in highly populated areas in Southern California.

Those pilots knew that they had one choice: to steer the jet over water. Any loss of life was not the best outcome, but the one they chose (88 lives lost instead of a jet crashing over San Diego or LAX airspace,) took bravery and a choice that none of us would want to make.

To second-guess those who were flying the plane is nothing short of idiotic. This is Alaska Airlines' first fatal accident in 24 years. Up till the crash January 31st, their safety record was stellar. Families can choose to bring in the bloodsuckers and extort money out of Alaska, but it won't bring their loved ones back.

-- Boeing Brat (getreal@litigationwontbringthemback.com), February 15, 2000.

Somtimes it is best to maintain altitude while things are sorted out. A landing approche with a stabilizer problem could have resulted in an abrupt dive into the ground from low altitude or if the nose pitched an abrupt climb followed by a stall and a dive into the ground. Some 40 plus years ago I encountered jammed controls on a light aircraft. An attempt at landing would have been very hazadous. By not attempting to get down immediately it was possible to free the controls and make a normal landing. I dont believe you will find many pilots or those familar with aircraft who would attempt to second guess the Air Alaska pilots. We have no assurance that a landing attempt would have been successful with the unstable

-- Roy (bushwhacker@northwoods.com), February 15, 2000.

When I make a posting the last word or two often gets cut off. ????

-- Roy (bushwhacker@north woods .com), February 15, 2000.

"When I make a posting the last word or two often gets cut off????"

Try adding a couple of carriage returns at the end of your post.

-- Tom Carey (tomcarey@mindspring.com), February 15, 2000.

One possible answer is above, that they thought it was safer to maintain altitude until they fully understood the problem.

Another is that the pilots knew that there would be hell to pay with some beancounters over the cost of an unscheduled landing, especially if the problem then turned out to be minor, and so they made a fatally bad decision to press on.

A third is that the pilots were themselves quite convinced that it wasn't a serious problem until too late.

If they'd declared an emergency and told the ground that they weren't convinced that they could safely fly over populated areas, they'd have been found an airstrip and an approach that avoided populated areas as far as possible.

The cockpit voice recordings will doubtless have made the pilots' reasoning clear to the crash investigators. What's the point in speculating?

-- Nigel (nra@maxwell.ph.kcl.ac.uk), February 16, 2000.

Thanks Tom Carey. I am still new to the net.

-- Roy (bushwhacker@north woods.com), February 16, 2000.

That's a good one, blame the deceased pilots to shield the executives, company and insurance carrier. I don't believe the pilots allowed the Jack Screw to pass inspection during a maintenance overhaul.

-- Squid (ItsDark@down.here), February 16, 2000.


They're gonna sue these folks and they're only asking for $75,000 in damages???

Can that be right?? Seems to me $750,000 or $75,000,000 would be more like it. Do they have a limit on these types of lawsuits??


-- Deano (deano@luvthebeach.com), February 16, 2000.

Good photos, diagrams and charts in this Aviation Now article.

The alternate trim switch may have played some sort of troublesome role. Can anyone elaborate on what might/could have gone wrong with it?

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), February 16, 2000.

Rachel, are you sure you have that link right, or is this another case of the NTSB ordering them to remove the information and photos?


-- Hawk (flyin@high.again), February 16, 2000.


Try this. Don't know what happened....

http://www.aviationnow.com/TwoShare/getPage/AWContent/AWST/awst_main_h eadlinenews

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), February 16, 2000.

Excellent, thanks.

-- Hawk (flyin@high.again), February 16, 2000.

...If they'd declared an emergency and told the ground that they weren't convinced that they could safely fly over populated areas, they'd have been found an airstrip and an approach that avoided populated areas as far as possible.

If they were anywhere from Tijuana on up, that seems like a pretty tall order. The entire area from the Mexican border all the north to LA is essentially one big megalopolis (San Diego-Orange County-LA). Many folks in San Diego still vividly remember the PSA crash back in 1978, which at the time was the worst air disaster in history. No way they'd try for SAN anyway; that airport is a beast to land at even when your plane's working perfectly, and if you augur in, you take out part of downtown San Diego. How about farther north in Carlsbad? Too small for an MD-80. Orange County? Crowded airspace and massive population. Imagine the screaming headlines if they'd dropped Flight 261 in the middle of Irvine or Santa Ana.

I suspect that the Alaska pilot was doing what a good pilot does in this situation: ensuring that any problems with his aircraft do not endanger any more people than absolutely necessary.

-- DeeEmBee (macbeth1@pacbell.net), February 16, 2000.

Fixed link

-- Michael (mikeymac@uswest.net), February 16, 2000.

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