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Breaking News

Alaska Airlines Flight 261: Spokesman Holds News Briefing, Breaking Down Passengers On Board Plane

Aired February 1, 2000 - 0:25 a.m. ET


JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: Updating you on CNN's continuous coverage of Alaska Airlines flight 261, the crash which occurred about five hours ago, 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport off the coast of Point Mugu. Some 89 people were on board, 84 of them passengers, five crew members. No indication of any survivors at this point. A massive search and rescue effort is underway by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The plane was en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco, then proceeding on to Seattle. It was diverted, however, after the pilot radioed problems with the stabilizer trim, which goes to the maneuverability and controllability of the aircraft. Radio contact was lost approximately 4:26 Pacific time, that's roughly four hours -- five hours ago now.

Jim Hill is aboard one of the search and rescue vessels off Point Mugu, joining us by telephone now. Jim, bring us up to date on the latest from where you are.

JIM HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, we're about 10 miles off Point Mugu, California. This is ground zero for the search. Around me, if I can paint a picture for you, I can see a number of Coast Guard cutters, some of the eight (inaudible). Also overhead, we see both fixed (audio interrupt) helicopters with searchlights. (audio interrupt) are a there are a dozen or more, perhaps 15 (audio interrupt).

Now, these boats, interestingly, (inaudible), are squid boats, which means they have very powerful lights on board which they use to attract the squid. (audio interrupt) now being used in the search area, really a stroke of good luck, I think, to have vessels with these powerful lights in the area.

But as I say, there are perhaps 15 of them, they're covering an area that I would say is a semicircle, perhaps of half a mile. Also in this area are at least four of these large platforms used for drilling oil. Now, these also (audio interrupt) on board, which could be pressed into action for a search (audio interrupt) conditions here, sky is clear, or perhaps (audio interrupt) (inaudible) conditions are relatively

MORET: We're going to interrupt Jim Hill's report. Jack Evans from Alaska Air is conducting another news conference. Let's bring you up to date on the latest, and go now to Jack Evans.

QUESTION: ... horizontal stabilizer, that's the one they were (inaudible) trim?

JACK EVANS, ALASKA AIRLINES SPOKESMAN: I was told that it's -- the trim, stabilizer trim, affects how the aircraft elevators operate as far as holding it in place, but I do not have it confirmed yet whether it was on the wings or on the tail.

QUESTION: (inaudible) vertical control...

EVANS: Correct. I mean, essentially, that's what it's doing, that's all I -- The pitch of the aircraft, correct.

QUESTION: The FAA (inaudible) and the horizontal stabilizers. My questions are, did this specific plane (inaudible)?

EVANS: I do not know what checks the airplane went through specifically, but I can certainly check and see if I can get that information for you.

QUESTION: In the list of people (inaudible) or they were from there?

EVANS: They were bound for those destinations.

QUESTION: (inaudible)?

EVANS: Yes, again, the passengers were bound to the following destinations in the following numbers, 32 of the passengers were bound for San Francisco, California, 47 for Seattle, three for Eugene, Oregon, and one to Fairbanks, Alaska.

QUESTION: When was that C-check again?

EVANS: The C-check was performed January 13th, 1999.

QUESTION: And nothing irregular was found during that check?

EVANS: You know, I'm not -- I don't have a list of what they may have repaired on that C-check.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) confirmation that there are no survivors?

EVANS: At this point, I don't have any information on survivors.

QUESTION: Could you tell us about the crew, in terms of experience?

EVANS: I don't have that information at this point.

QUESTION: Were the 47 -- were they part of, like, a travel group of any kind, I mean, sort of a discount (ph) group?

EVANS: I'm not -- I'm not aware of any affiliation that passengers may have had on the aircraft. QUESTION: Did you find out when (INAUDIBLE)

EVANS: You know, I didn't, but I'll check on that for you.

QUESTION: Jack, what was the percentage again (INAUDIBLE) accident rate on the MD-80?

EVANS: MD accident rate is 0.41 accidents per one million departures.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea when you might be (INAUDIBLE)

EVANS: I know that right now we are in the process of notifying family members of those passengers that were on 261. So right now, as soon as people are notified, I'll find out if we're going to be releasing it in one batch or in several batches, but I'll get that information for you.

QUESTION: Do we know if the crew was from this area?

EVANS: The crew was split. The two pilots were based in Los Angeles, and the flight attendants were based in Seattle.


EVANS: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Any information on those flight attendants?

EVANS: At this point, all I can tell you is they are based in Seattle.

QUESTION: Do you think you'll be able to have pictures of them?

EVANS: If we have pictures available, we may be able to, yeah.

QUESTION: How low is .41 accidents per one million departures?

EVANS: Relative to other aircraft?


EVANS: Well, both the MD-80 and the 737, the two aircraft we fly, have excellent accident rates. They're very, very safe aircraft, and so, you know, we launch daily 500 -- over 500 daily departures as an airline every day of the year. So you know, we have absolute confidence in these aircraft.

QUESTION: Jack, you said you didn't know (INAUDIBLE)

EVANS: If there is a required check for it, I can found out. I don't know. I'll have to confirm it. But I don't know.

QUESTION: Jack, what does 250 hours for an A-check work out to in time, about once a month or... EVANS: You know, I don't know. I'll have to check on how -- what the frequency of it actually is. I got the sense it was a fairly frequent check, an A-check, but I just don't have any more details on how frequently they may occur.

QUESTION: Jack, about 15 minutes ago (INAUDIBLE) conflicting report (INAUDIBLE) as many as 84 people on the plane. Is that incorrect?

EVANS: The correct count I have right now is 83.

QUESTION: Were all of the passengers Americans?

EVANS: I don't have that information.

QUESTION: Jack, you said that they lost -- that -- they lost touch with the plane at 4:36. Can you back up about -- I think you mentioned something about the last contact with them, what was said. They said "We're having problems with the stabilizer trim"?

EVANS: Correct.

QUESTION: Due to something?

EVANS: Correct.


EVANS: I don't have all of -- the only information I had was that they were having a problem with the stabilizer trim. There wasn't an indication of what type of -- I don't have information on what type of problem they were having with it, specifically. However, I was told that was the last radio contact we had with them was when they indicted this problem.

QUESTION: Do you know what time the plane was set to arrive?

EVANS: You know, I don't have the arrival time, but I will check on that for you.

QUESTION: Jack, had the plane actually made a turn, and was it heading back to Los Angeles at the time?

EVANS: I'll have to check that for you, too.

QUESTION: Are you giving instructions to the families? Are they going someplace? Are they on their way to L.A. and you're putting them up down there?

EVANS: I don't have a lot of information on exactly what we're communicating to the families. I know that we're obviously giving them information about their loved on being on this flight, and I believe we're making -- I know we're offering to assist them, but I'm not quite sure what kind of assistance we're offering specifically. But I'd be more than happy to track that down for you. MORET: This is Jack Evans, a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, giving us the latest. And he breaks down the passengers on board the plane. Thirty-two were bound for San Francisco, forty-seven for Seattle, Washington, three for Eugene, Oregon, one for Fairbanks, Alaska, which totals 83 passengers. And Mr. Evans just cleared up the discrepancy. Earlier he had been reporting 83, then 84. They are back to the number on 83. Of the five crew members, two, the pilot and co-pilot, were based in Los Angeles, and the three flight attendants were based in Seattle. So once again, 88 people on board, total, 5 of them crew members.

We were talking before we went to that news conference with Jim Hill, who's aboard one of the search vessels off of Point Mugu, where the massive effort is continuing. Jim Hill joined us by cellular phone. The cellular coverage in that are is rather spotty along the coast north of Los Angeles. Jim reported that there are eight cutters, some fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters with search lights.

Let's see if we can reestablish communication with Jim Hill.

Jim, have you been able to see any debris from your vantage point?

HILL: Jim, as a matter of fact, the vessel that we're on, the Estrella (ph), a fishing boat, just brought in a piece of debris, a white, twisted piece of -- of fabric, it looks like, whitish in color, perhaps four inches square. Looks like it might perhaps be part of the interior because it appears to have some fabric on it. Hard to say what it is, though.

As I said earlier, this search is being aided by some very powerful lights on vessels that are fishing for shrimp in this area. And we can see these now perhaps a couple hundred yards off from our left side, our port bow. And these are -- are a great help in this, really, Jim, because they light up this area as perhaps no other search vessel can do. Even the Coast Guard cutters, with their searchlights, can't seem to match the power of these -- these shrimp boats, or rather the squid boats.

We saw more aircraft just go over, some helicopters sweeping the seas with their searchlights. But at this point, it's just a -- it's just a methodical process. The swells are coming in from the northwest, probably pushing this debris field somewhat to the south. So these vessels are sweeping back and forth, moving in a big semi- circle, from what I can see, probably starting in the south and then working a little bit to the north to try to meet the debris field.

MORET: And we're able to see those lights that you're referencing, and those are coming -- the brighter lights are coming from the fishing boats, which are, you say, aiding the Coast Guard in the search-and-rescue effort?

HILL: Yes, that's right, Jim. I imagine there are a dozen or perhaps more of these squid-fishing vessels. They have both a large vessel that stays relatively stationary, but they also have smaller boats that are -- are lighting boats for the purposes of moving out into the water, rounding up shrimp, so to speak, and then moving them closer to the larger boats, which can -- can bring them in with nets. So these highly mobile, smaller boats -- I would say perhaps 15, 20- foot boats, are moving through the swells most easily, and the larger boats are stationed in a larger semi-circle.

There's some activity on board our boat right now. More debris has been spotted. One of the crewmen is running to the bow now, where he is about to use a net to scoop up what appears to be a red -- a red object in the water, relatively small object bobbing in the swells. Yes -- no -- he's just about got it. Yes, it appears to be a piece of bright red fabric. He has it in his net now.

This is the process that's being accomplished on all the vessels here. You listen to the marine traffic, and they're telling people on all the vessels what to watch out for. They're telling them if they see anything in the water, they're required to pick it up, certainly any human remains. And so all of the boats are doing just what our vessel is doing, looking as best they can and sending deckhands out quickly to scoop up any debris from the water with nets or grappling hooks or anything they really have.

MORET: That's CNN's Jim Hill aboard a fishing vessel which is aiding in the U.S. Coast Guard's search-and-rescue effort off of Point Mugu, and we saw shots earlier of some victims who were recovered, and they are being assembled at Port Wyneemi (ph), which is just up the coast from Point Mugu. That again, Jim Hill, indicating that some eight cutters, some fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and, of course, those fishing boats with the very powerful lights are assisting in an effort which is expected to continue throughout the night.


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: And Carl Rochelle is still with us in Washington, a pilot himself. And we heard Jack Evans with Alaska Airlines answering more questions once again about the stabilizer trim problem. And we heard Mr. Evans say that he wasn't sure if it was with the wing or the tail.

Could you -- could you explain to us exactly how this works? I know there were problems reported with the balancing control mechanism on that plane shortly before it went down.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Catherine, I suspect that he's not a pilot or he'd know where it was. It's -- and that's not to speak down to him at all because not everyone who works for an airline actually flies airplanes.

But here is where -- the horizontal stabilizer is this device on the back end of the airplane. It's right here. Let me roll it on the side so you can get a little angle so you can see it. This is the device. The trim tabs that they would be talking about would be on the very back section, the very aft section of this. And they are designed so that when this moves in one direction, the trim tab moves in the other direction. And you can adjust the trim tab. The control wheel is the one that moves the main area of this, the big control wheel that they have in their hands. That's what moves the big one back and forth. But then they can trim the pressures off of that with the trim tab. That's exactly why it's called a trim tab. It uses an electric motor to drive that, and it will rotate up or down.

And when you take off in an airplane and you climb, then what you do when you're climbing is you trim the pressures off so that the airplane will fly essentially hands-off. When you're in level flight, you trim it so that it will fly in level flight essentially hands-off. And again, if you start a descent, again you re-trim the aircraft. When you're in level flight with the autopilot engaged, you do very little in the way of trimming.

There is such a thing as a "runaway trim tab." It is one of the things that pilots are schooled in. And one of the ways you deal with that is you pull the circuit-breaker on it and shut the electric motor down that drives the trim tab, and you go to manual operation on it. I don't know if that's the problem that they had with the trim tab. They certainly had some sort of problem.

But it may also be that the problem they reported with the -- with the trim tabs or with the elevator trim is a -- is a symptom of something that is even more significant because most of the pilots that I have talked to do not believe that just the trim by itself would cause the airplane to go in because you can disconnect the electric function of it and operate it manually. That is one of the things that you can do with a trim tab, and you should be able to recover from any kind of situation like that.

But it may have had something other to do with the controls and causing the plane to go in. If the reports are correct that the airplane was seen going down very steeply, then that could be a factor in it, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: All right, thanks, Carl Rochelle.

And our coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 will continue after we take a break.


CALLAWAY: Our coverage continues now of Alaska Airlines Flight 261.

We're going to go back to Jim Hill, who is on a search vessel off Point Mugu.

Jim, can you hear me?

HILL: Right now we're witnessing a hand-off. Los Angeles County Fire Department boat has just come alongside the fishing boat where I am. And crew members are transferring some debris, about three or four pieces that this boat has fished out of the water, transferring them onto the fire department vessel, which is now pulling -- pulling away with them.

We're right in the middle of the debris field. Every two or three minutes now, at this point, another piece of debris is spotted in the water, and a crewman runs over and brings it out with the grappling hook or a net. What I've seen so far, a couple of pieces of foam, a piece of foam with perhaps a four-by-four twisted piece of aluminum (INAUDIBLE) There's a couple of wrappers from peanuts -- peanut packages of the type that are handed out on airplanes.


CALLAWAY: That was Jim Hill reporting to us from a search vessel there at Point Mugu. Obviously, we're having some problems with that call.

Let's now go to Jim Moret.


MORET: Catherine, flight 261 Alaska Airlines was an MD-83. Joining us now by telephone is Jim McKenna of "Aviation Week" magazine, hopefully to shed some light on the characteristics of their aircraft.

What is the safety record, if you know, on the MD-83, which is a variation of the MD-80, is that correct?

JIM MCKENNA, "AVIATION WEEK": That's correct. Its safety record is on average with most of the airplanes flying today. It's a very safe airplane.

MORET: And when you hear of a pilot talking about a stabilizer trim problem, what does that suggest to you, if anything? Clearly, we're in a very preliminary stage of this investigation.

MCKENNA: It doesn't suggest much, although investigators certainly will be keenly interested in getting the ATC tapes, the air traffic control tapes, to get a very definitive rundown of what the pilots reported about the problems they were experiencing, what the controllers understood was the problem on board. The stabilizer trim problem could have been a relatively minor situation that they were dealing with or it could have been, as Carl Rochelle said, indicative of a more serious problem on board. The investigators will want to nail down which it was.

MORET: There's only been one radio contact identified where the pilot described this problem. Does the fact that there were not more radio contacts between the ground and the pilot suggest anything to you?

MCKENNA: No. It doesn't. It's too early to draw any conclusions from the sketchy reports about the radio communications. The investigators will want to pair the radio communications up with the radar records of what the airplane was doing in the sky, to get an indication of how it was moving and how that correlates with the pilots' reports to better understand what may have been going wrong on the airplane.

MORET: Mr. McKenna, we heard from Alaska Airlines that this particular aircraft was serviced a day before the accident and also underwent what was identified as an A-check on January 11th. Can you fill us in on what that means? What is an A-check?

MCKENNA: An A-check is routine maintenance done on almost every commercial airliner that's flying today. It's part of a very detailed scheme for maintaining the airplanes over the course of their life.

MORET: And we're looking, incidentally, at videotape of the sister planes of the fleet of Alaska Airlines. The particular plane, we understand, was built in 1992. Is that a fairly recent -- recently built plane? It's not considered an aging aircraft, is it, sir?

MCKENNA: No, it's practically brand-new by airliner standards.

MORET: And is there anything that you've heard in the early stages of the investigation into the crash -- and clearly, this is all very preliminary. Is there anything to allow you to rule out something, or do certain things you've heard raise any questions?

MCKENNA: No. Certainly, the investigators are going to want to determine exactly what servicing was done on the airplane yesterday and even today during its flights up and down the West Coast. They'll want to see if there were any prior indications of problems with any of the control systems, including the stabilizer trim system. They'll want to check on whether the stabilizer trim system was among the systems that wax examined and maintained during the A-check and verify that all of the work that may have been done on the control systems of the airplane was done properly.

That means they'll want to check the paperwork. They'll want to interview all the mechanics who did that work on how they preformed the work on this specific airplane and how they perform the work routinely on any airplane that they touch so they can get a better idea of how healthy that airplane was before it took off for San Francisco.

MORET: Jim McKenna joining us by telephone from "Aviation Week" magazine. Thank you for your insight tonight.

Charles Feldman joining us here in Los Angeles, CNN correspondent, also a licensed private pilot.

Charles, give us your sense of your experience flying in and around this area. You've mentioned earlier it is a heavily controlled airspace and actually quite crowded, as well.

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, it's a very -- it's one of the most congested airspaces that you'll find in the United States or anywhere in the world. You've got Los Angeles International Airport relatively close. You've got Santa Barbara. You've got Burbank. You've got a naval air station at Point Mugu, which is close to the area where the Alaska Airlines flight went down. So it's a very congested airspace. But let me tell you -- share this with you, Jim, having covered a number of airplane crashes over the years and knowing something about airplanes. Every -- or most, I should say -- airplane crashes -- they tend to be unique events because most things that bring down an airliner tend to be not a single cause but a combination of causes that snowball and result in the crash.

And so to some degree, when we all ask when these crashes occur, "What's the history of the aircraft? What kind of maintenance history does it have?" often that really isn't a very relevant question because one of the things that happens is every time there is an airplane crash, the NTSB spends a lot of time and energy trying to pinpoint what the cause of that crash was.

And then once it's discovered -- and most of the times it is -- recommendations are then made to the Federal Aviation Administration, and corrections are made to the aircraft. So every aircraft accident tends to be a unique occurrence.

MORET: CNN's Charles Feldman.

We'll take a break and be back with more of our continuing coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261.


CALLAWAY: As we continue our coverage of flight 261, we return now to Jim Hill, who is on a boat in the search area off of Point Mugu.


HILL: That's right. At this point, I can see a Coast Guard helicopter going overhead about 50, 100 yards from us now, flying a little more than 200 feet above the ocean surface. We're now in the middle of perhaps a dozen or more fishing boats with their powerful lights, all of these boats using their grappling hooks and nets to bring debris out of the ocean. The boat I'm on now, the Estrella, has recovered four pieces of debris, at this point, turned them over to the fire department boat that came alongside.

The water conditions here not ideal, swells five to seven feet. But the visibility is quite good. It is a clear night, so the boats, especially smaller vessels, are being pitched around rather violently, but overall, the visibility is quite good.

The hopes of finding survivors, of course, diminishes with each passing hour. The water is about 54 degrees. That means that, at best, people could survive only a matter of hours in that water. But the search-and-rescue operation, according to the Coast Guard, is going to continue full force until there is absolutely no possibility that any survivors could still be in this kind of water condition -- that according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

I'm Jim Hill, reporting live about 10 miles off Point Mugu, California. CALLAWAY: All right, thank you, Jim Hill. And now let's return to Jim Moret.


MORET: Let's take you now to Point Mugu Naval Air Station, where Jennifer Auther is standing by with the latest update.


JENNIFER AUTHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, here from Point Mugu, we can tell you that officials here are continuing to lend their equipment. Right now, seven Coast Guard cutters, three helicopters -- of those, there's the HCS-5, the HH-60 Seahawk. They have infrared night vision. Plus the P3 O'Ryan (ph) surveillance aircraft is helping to find what we know now are bodies that are being recovered, as well as debris.

We're told that the debris field is 20 miles off the coast here, six miles by six miles, so that's a considerable amount of space that they will have to cover. The water can be as deep as 400 feet, but we are told by most of the officials here this is still search-and- rescue. They are still looking for survivors.


MORET: Bringing you the latest -- 88 people on board, 83 of them passengers, 5 crew members.

Stay with CNN for continuing coverage of the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash off of California. I'm Jim Moret reporting from Los Angeles.

Catherine, back to you.

CALLAWAY: And Jim, before we leave, Alaska Airlines now has two numbers, help numbers for U.S. and Canada residents, and now for residents in Mexico -- 1-800-553-5117 for U.S. and Canadian residents. That no longer is an automated number. And Mexico residents, 1-800- 252-7522.

Our coverage of Alaska Flight 261 will continue right after this break.


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