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Burden of Proof

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 Crash Investigation: NTSB Initiates Process of Deciphering Evidence, Determining Cause

Aired February 2, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



JOHN KELLY, CHMN. & CEO, ALASKA AIRLINES: I've been with Alaska Airlines, Alaska Air group for over 23 years. I've never, ever had any loss in all those times, in anything that I've ever done, have we ever had anything like this. These are our family. I mean, these are our employees, these are our co-workers, these are our friends, these are our loved ones.

JOHN HAMMERSCHMIDT, NTSB MEMBER: At 4:11 Pacific Standard Time, air traffic control asked Flight 261 their condition. The flight advised air traffic control that they were kind of stabilized and going to do some troubleshooting.

JIM HALL, NTSB CHAIRMAN: We have identified four flight crews that were in the vicinity that saw the -- some portion of the final descent of this aircraft. They are going to be interviewed by our investigators.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Investigators search the Pacific waters for wreckage from a fatal flight. How will the NTSB decipher the evidence and determine the cause of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Two days after an airline crash off the coast of California, hopes for finding survivors have faded. Today, investigators are looking for answers from the cockpit of the Alaska Airlines MD-83.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: This morning on CNN, the NTSB chairman, Jim Hall, said there's focus on the pilots of Flight 261 and their recorded discussions with Alaska Airlines' maintenance center.


HALL: Our investigators out of our Seattle office have obtained from Alaska Airlines an audio tape that contains the conversations of the flight crew of the accident flight and the maintenance base in Seattle for Alaska Airlines. It covers all of their conversations while they are trying to troubleshoot this problem. I'm hopeful that that information off of that audio tape, which is being sent to our headquarters in Washington, D.C., today for readout...


COSSACK: And joining us today from Boston is former U.S. Navy diver Brendan Murphy. And here in Washington, Kathryn Wilson (ph), former NTSB member Lee Dickinson, and former FAA chief litigator Michael Pangia.

VAN SUSTEREN: And in our back row, Vanda Lorungrochana (ph), Brett Grayson (ph) and Tiffany Stone (ph).

Also joining us from Port Hueneme is CNN correspondent and certified pilot Carl Rochelle.

Carl, first to you: Are they looking at two tapes at this point? And if so, what are these two tapes?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the two tapes that they are looking at, one of course we've heard about quite a bit, that was the tapes of the conversations between the crew and the air traffic controllers on the ground, when they told them that they had a problem with the stabilizer, later told them that the stabilizer was jammed.

But the second tape is conversations between the crew and their maintenance base. And this is quite typical. If the crew has a problem that is not in their SOPs, the pilot's operating handbook in the aircraft, the plane flight manual, then they will call the maintenance base on a company radio frequency, which is separate from the frequencies that they use to talk to air traffic controller, report the problem and ask the maintenance base for advice: What do I do? How do I fix this problem? What can I do to patch around it till I get on the ground.

I actually happened to be in the jump seat of a 727 once that had an emergency in flight and watched as the crew pulled out the book, called the maintenance base and talked their way through it. It turned out to be not an emergency but a bad gauge in the case of the plane that I was on, but I watched the procedure worked through, and that's exactly what they do.

They have a record of those conversations. They are being sent to the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington and they will provide valuable analysis because it will give minute detail of what the crew saw the problem was, Greta. That's what they are trying to figure out: what happened.

By the way, let me tell you, also, that this morning, we are told that an American Airlines flight from Phoenix to Dallas declared an emergency after it discovered a trim problem in its stabilizer, turned around and went back into Phoenix and landed. That is investigating. Of course, when you have an accident involving a particular aspect of an airplane, everybody is twice cautious, anytime something like that shows up. And this American Airlines plane is on the ground in Phoenix and safe, but they're checking out a problem just like that, Greta.

COSSACK: Carl, are there any salvage ships that are expected into the area very soon?

ROCHELLE: We are told that, this morning, the Kelly Chouest, that's C-H-O-U-E-S-T, the Kelly Chouest, is pulling into the port where we are right now and will be heading out later today. The Kelly Chouest is the sister ship of the Carolyn Chouest, which was in operation off of Nantucket trying to recover wreckage by the EgyptAir 990 flight. I'm told by the Navy that the Kelly Chouest has its own ROV. That's a remotely operated vehicle that can be used to dive down in the waters. That is on board the ship. It has its own. It will go in to look for the "black boxes."

Now, we do know that they have heard pingers down. They don't know whether it's the pingers of both boxes, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, or the pinger off of one. Difficult to tell when they're all in the area because it literally is a series of clicks that they pick up on a special audio device that they put down in the water. But they have heard the pings. That's probably one of the first jobs that the Chouest will do.

By the way, Roger, I'm told that, likely, this morning, the Coast Guard may very well change this from a search-and-rescue operation to a search-and-recovery operation, and that means that they have decided, after taking all the factors into consideration, that there is no longer a chance of a survivor in there. They have been looking for survivors, and that changes the focus of the mission from one of rescuing people to one of recovering the wreckage and recovering any human remains they can find out there.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, let's go to Boston, to Brendan Murphy.

Brendan, I'm learning an awful lot about diving from afar. The TWA flight was down 120 feet below the surface; EgyptAir, 270. This is thought to be 600 to 700 feet below the surface. Can a diver go down that far?

BRENDAN MURPHY, FMR. U.S. NAVY DIVER: There are systems that would allow a diver to go down to 700. In fact, there've been divers to 1,400 feet. However, they're not standard systems; they're not easy systems to put on board ships, at least the ones that the Navy has.

VAN SUSTEREN: What's it like down at 700 feet compared to 120 or 270. Is it any different?

MURPHY: Well, having never been there, I couldn't tell you. Talking to colleagues of mine, it's dark, it's cold. The type diving that we'd be talking about there is saturation diving, and it's basically they live out of a habitat for a number of days, and even weeks. However, conventional diving means that they could have used at Egypt and that we did use at Swissair and TWA really are limited to about 300 feet. Right now, it'd be premature to think that they would want to bring in some sort of saturation dive system until it's decided exactly what the NTSB wants to get from the debris field.

VAN SUSTEREN: Can you just contrast that with me? Explain what the side-scan sonar is, which is what these ships that are coming into the -- how does that differ, the side-scan sonar?

MURPHY: OK, side-scan sonar is a means where acoustical signals are sent out and it basically gives you a picture of the bottom. What they're probably using now, or they may have used, is called a pinger receiver. And what that does, it picks up the ping of the "Black boxes" and gives a location. I'm not sure what ROV they have on board the Kelly Chouest. However, some of the ROVs that the Navy have, they have pinger receivers on them also. So when they put that over, the ROV will be able to go directly to the area where the "black box" is.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. Up next, the aircraft was an MD-83. We'll take a closer look at this plane and its record when we come back.


Despite his apologies for misrepresenting himself, Paul Kurtz of New York has been sentenced to three years and five months in prison. Kurtz posed as a lawyer in 14 federal criminal cases, five cases before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and one case in federal bankruptcy court. He is not an attorney.



COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log on to and click you way to the BURDEN OF PROOF link. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand.


Oklahoma bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols was arraigned today on 160 state counts of first-degree murder for the 1995 bombing of the federal building.

Nichols is already serving a life sentence for conviction on federal charges. Oklahoma prosecutors are trying to get the death penalty for any state convictions.


VAN SUSTEREN: Investigators are piecing together this tragic puzzle behind Alaska Airlines flight 261's deadly crash into the Pacific Ocean. The aircraft was an MD-83 jetliner, which is a twin- engine successor to the well-known DC-9. It has a single aisle between passenger seats, with an engine on each side of the tail.

This particular plane was built by McDonnell Douglas, which is now part of Boeing, and was delivered to Alaska Airlines in 1992.

Mike, stabilizers is what all the attention is on. But that's the tip of the iceberg. What could have possibly -- what is the NTSB looking for? What could it possibly be?

MICHAEL PANGIA, FMR. FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, we have some indication from the communication that it was a problem with the stabilizer or stabilizer trim, and now we are hearing that it may have been a jammed stabilizer, and that of course is controlling the pitch of the airplane, either by pulling back or forward on the yoke, which the pilot can do or by using an electronic trim.

The autopilot is also connected into that. And the autopilot could be driving that.

VAN SUSTEREN: But can't you manually override the hydraulics and manually override the autopilot?

PANGIA: If everything is working fine, yes. There have been situations in some other aircraft where the autopilot had commanded a trim nose down where they could not get it out of autopilot. But they do have a fail-safe on this.

Now this indicates that something could have happened electronically or hydraulically downstream of this. In wild speculation, something happening in the cargo hold, like a fire or something of that sort, or electronic shorts and so forth that had disrupted system, manifesting itself to the pilot, to what the crew would think is a stabilizer problem.

But that may not be the origin. The origin may not be the stabilizer, it could be electronically downstream of that.

COSSACK: All right, Lee, let's talk about gathering evidence from the situation. Michael has told us what it could have been. Now, where do you start? do you start looking at the maintenance records? what do you do?

LEE DICKINSON, FORMER NTSB OFFICIAL: That's exactly right, Roger. What is happening right now, as we speak, there is a group of NTSB employees who are right now looking at the inspection records on this airplane. They are looking at the maintenance records. They are looking to see whether or not any of the A.D.s, which is an airworthiness directive, which is a requirement put out by the Federal Aviation Administration, to do certain things to an aircraft.

They will look at service bulletins that would have been put out by either McDonnell Douglas or Boeing. Anything to make sure that all of these type guidelines, recommendations, requirements have been performed on this airplane. That's just a piece of what's going on right now.

COSSACK: So they look at the specific records for this particular airplane?

DICKINSON: Absolutely. There is no question. There was word the other day that there was some service done on this aircraft, I believe it was the day before the accident. Went through what is known as an A-check, I believe on January 11th of this year, and went through a more detailed rigorous inspection a year ago, January of 1999, which is known as a C-check. All that information will be retrieved, looked at, to make sure, to see if it has anything to do with what we are finding out, or what the Safety Board is finding out now. Again, that's just a piece of the puzzle.

VAN SUSTEREN: Carl, are there any service bulletins on this particular model of aircraft?

ROCHELLE: There are, there are airworthiness directives on this aircraft. A service bulletin is a note from the company to the airline that you may have a problem you ought to look at. An airworthiness directive carries a command, if you will, from the FAA to fix this and sets a time limit on it.

I understand that the chairman of Alaska Airlines said that this airworthiness directive about the stabilizer trim had not been taken care of on this aircraft, but would be taken care of on the next one. It has to do with the hinges that couple where the moving surfaces go together, and some corrosion in those particular areas.

VAN SUSTEREN: Carl, when did that airworthiness directive come out? and did the airline have a particular time period in which to comply?

ROCHELLE: It did have a time period in which to comply. I don't have the exact A.D. in front of me. So I can't tell you exactly when it came out, but there still is some time before the airline had to comply with it. Typically, the FAA will give them plenty of time to do it and it is something that probably was scheduled. We know it went through an A-check and a C-check. This was probably something for a D-check, where they essentially take the airplane apart and go through all of those pieces of it piece by piece. They weren't in violation of the law by not having done it yet, as long as they took care of it by the next one.

COSSACK: Carl, let me jump in there a second.

Lee, it seems to me the corrosion on the stabilizer, as a person who flies on planes, that just sounds, you know, it is very frightening, it is something that should be handled immediately. I mean, how can it be that this kind of a problem wasn't looked at and corrected immediately, not suggesting this was the problem, but a problem like corrosion of the stabilizer?

DICKINSON: Well, you have to be concerned, Roger. When Carl mentioned corrosion, to the average person that may mean something that is entirely different to a person that is more technical. It is my understanding is the airworthiness directive did, indeed, come out from the Federal Aviation Administration last year, 1999, but they gave -- as Greta indicated -- they gave them an 18-month window in which these MD-80s had to be looked at.

And it's my understanding that this airplane, at least what I have read so far this morning, this airplane has not been checked yet. But apparently, several others have been checked, and they found no corrosion in between. And it's also my understanding that the area they are looking at is connection between the horizontal part, the horizontal stabilizer, itself, and where it connects to the vertical stabilizer, which is the T-tail, itself, from this MD-80.

COSSACK: Let's take a break. Up next: Alaska Airlines has one of the best safety records in the air travel business. Stay with us.



Q: In a bar investigation against him, whose testimony has lawyer F. Lee Bailey asked not be used?

A: Lawyer Robert Shapiro. Bailey has asked the Florida Supreme Court to prohibit a transcript of Shapiro's testimony from Bailey's 1996 contempt trial. The two men were members of O.J. Simpson's "dream team."


COSSACK: Alaska Airlines has suffered three fatal crashes in its six decades in flying. It has one of the best safety records in the air travel business. However, a federal grand jury in California has allegedly been investigating complaints of maintenance irregularities at the company's servicing center.


KELLY: This investigation has nothing to do with this particular aircraft, and I think it's really important to note that this investigation really centered around a check that we do that isn't even required by the manufacturer. It's called a post-maintenance final checklist, a final-run checklist, and it's something that we added on our own, it's above and beyond, and the question here was whether in fact it had been signed off by the right individual.


COSSACK: Michael Pangia, why would a grand jury -- and we're not saying that they were in any way investigating this particular airplane -- but allegedly investigating the maintenance records, what would they be looking to find out?

PANGIA: Fraud, to see if there's an improper entry in the logs, in the maintenance logs. Everything that is done it to an aircraft must be logged and properly signed off by the mechanic and the mechanic's supervisor, and the logs are important to tell us exactly what was done in an aircraft. They're also important to tell us what was not done on an aircraft, because of absence of something in the logs of something that should have been done indicates that legally it was not done.

So, I don't know the facts of this, and I don't want to imply anything here, but what's very, very important is that if that is a situation that is endemic with a company, in other words, it may not be an isolated incident, it may be something that management needs to look at. The problem is that the FAA tends to go after the little guy, the little mechanic, hoping that the mechanic is then, in turn, going to supervise his employer by refusing to do certain things...

VAN SUSTEREN: And of course (OFF-MIKE).

PANGIA: And some very often overlooked problem that's endemic with a company's shop, which I have seen, a whole attitude where they're taking shortcut -- and here again I'm not saying that's the case here.

VAN SUSTEREN: And wait a second. I mean, here -- and here, I mean, an investigation doesn't mean someone has done something wrong. It's simply an investigation.

PANGIA: It's an investigation.

COSSACK: It's purely an investigation.

VAN SUSTEREN: It may be a -- it may be -- we've seen the term "whistle-blower"; it could be an employee who's unhappy. I mean, you know, there's lot of...

PANGIA: But they're getting a lot tougher. Ever since ValuJet, we have seen I think for the first time, or at least the first time so publicly, that they're going after violations criminally and not just with sanctions from the Federal Aviation Administration.

VAN SUSTEREN: But you know, we toss around words like "criminally," and it sounds, you know -- we simply -- this is an investigation, that's where we are.

PANGIA: And a grand jury -- a grand jury investigation is for potential criminal activity. There's also an FAA investigation, which is not criminal, it's civil, but it carries with it either suspensions or revocations of pilots' licenses or civil penalties against companies.

COSSACK: I guess the only point we lawyers are making is that we just want everyone to understand that in no way are we saying that there is any criminal violations against Alaska Airlines or anybody decide that they've done anything wrong.

PANGIA: Absolutely. Somebody has alleged it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Lee, are other companies being investigated? This is -- I mean, is it common to investigate airlines like this?

DICKINSON: That is the oversight responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration, to make sure that the airlines are maintaining their airlines properly, that they're training their pilots correctly, that they're providing safe and efficient service to the American public. That is a...

VAN SUSTEREN: So we shouldn't focus on this so much. OK.

DICKINSON: I agree, no way.

COSSACK: Brendan, I want to go to something you mentioned earlier in the program, the ROVs. Describe for our moment what an ROV is, what it means.

MURPHY: Remotely-operated vehicle. It's a robot. There's a long tether that sends power and communications to this underwater robot. Depending which one you use, some of them have two manipulating arms. There is one called the Deep Drone that Navy has that can lift up to 250 pounds. Also attached on these things are sector-scan sonar, that allows it to see through, you know, murky water using sonar. It also has video, still cameras. The depths of these things are various where they can work. In fact, the Navy used one a number of years ago and recovered a helicopter out of 14,000 feet of water.

VAN SUSTEREN: Lee, is it possible to truly find out the cause of this aircraft actually without bringing it up from the ocean floor and rebuilding it?

DICKINSON: Yes. To follow what Brendan was saying, if the Safety board not only is able to locate but retrieve both the recorders, the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. Hopefully this airplane being only eight years old the flight data recorder's most likely a digital flight data recorder. It probably has numerous parameters on there, hopefully one of which would be information on the potion of the horizontal stabilizer that everybody apparently is focusing on right now. But in addition to that, Greta, it should have information on the control surfaces of the aircraft itself so that the investigators will have...

VAN SUSTEREN: What if it's corrosion? Would the flight data recorder or the voice data recorder -- we wouldn't know then if that's the problem.

DICKINSON: It -- that's exactly right in terms of the flight data recorder. However, I don't -- I caution your viewers not to jump to the conclusion that you may have a corrosion problem here just because Carl mentioned earlier a possible A.D. that went out here.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I think it's quite plain to our -- I think it's quite plain to our viewers, at least everybody says, we have absolutely no idea that these are sort of signs that we are looking in terms of investigating. But I get the last word.

COSSACK: You sure do.

VAN SUSTEREN: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Did yesterday's New Hampshire primary redefine the race to the White House? Submit your vote today on "TALKBACK LIVE." That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, noon Pacific. COSSACK: And tomorrow on BURDEN OF PROOF, an off-duty cop is mistaken for a suspect and killed by his fellow police officers. Now, civil rights leaders say the color of his skin was the reason for his mistaken identity. We'll see you then.


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