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Breaking News

NTSB Officials Hold News Conference

Aired February 1, 2000 - 4:32 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: CNN now goes live to Port Hueneme, California, where the National Transportation Safety Board is about to brief reporters in the initial phases of its investigation of Alaska Air Flight 261's crash last evening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is principal spokesman for the investigating team here on scene.

For those of you who have never covered the Safety Board, we will be briefing you on factual information. We do not speculate or analyze that information at this time.

And once Member Hammerschmidt has completed his prepared remarks, he will be happy to field a few questions from you.

Thank you.

And this is our last press activity for the day.

JOHN HAMMERSCHMIDT, SPOKESMAN, NTSB: Thank you, Ted. And good afternoon.

Let me say that, first of all, that the NTSB go team, the initial launch team departed Washington's Reagan National Airport at 2:50 a.m. this morning. We were on a five-hour flight. We arrived here at about 4:50 a.m. Pacific Standard Time into Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

The initial launch team consisted of 10 NTSB personnel, one FAA person and one individual with the Naval -- U.S. Navy's office of supervisor of salvage.

My mission at this point that in this investigation the investigator in charge, the key person here on the scene is this individual behind me, Mr. Dick Rodriquez.

I might mention that Mr. Rodriguez has been at the National Transportation Safety Board longer than anyone else. He was there on day one.

And of course, more people from the NTSB will be arriving today and in future days. It goes without saying that our thoughts and prayers and concerns are with those who are suffering from this very tragic accident. What I would like to do is to go through basically what the investigation has learned thus far in terms of how we have organized the investigation, and then I will get into some of the information that's been collected in this short timeframe since we've been here.

This morning at about 9:30 we conducted our organizational meeting. The investigation has been organized into various teams that we typically organize into, such as operations, air worthiness, structures, air traffic control and witness. In addition, we have personnel from the Safety Board's Office of Family Affairs on the scene to help coordinate assistance to the families who had loved ones on board Flight 261.

I might mention that the Safety Board, as we typically do, is operating on a party system in that we designate certain organizations who can provide us with the expertise, knowledge and skills that we need to complete a thorough investigation.

The parties to this investigation that we have designated are the Federal Aviation Administration; Alaska Airlines; Boeing, which is the manufacturer of the aircraft; Pratt & Whitney Company, the manufacturer of the engines on the aircraft; the Airline Pilots Association, more commonly called ALPA; the Association of Flight Attendants; and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

An additional party is the Ventura County Emergency Operations Center, which is the local authority.

Also assisting us in this investigation are the United States Coast Guard, the United States Navy, the FBI, and the California Office of Emergency Services.

Going back to the way that this investigation is organized into the several teams or groups, I might mention that in the organizational meeting that we designated, in addition to the group chairman for our operations group, five other individuals. And I just mentioned this to give you an idea of the current scope of the investigative personnel.

In the air traffic control group, in addition to the group chairman -- and all the group chairmen are Safety Board investigators -- we have four individuals helping the group chairman in air traffic control.

In our -- what we're calling our airworthiness group, which will become a structures group at some point, we have five individuals in addition to the group chairman. In the -- in the maintenance records group, which is going to be operating remotely from here -- it will meet in Seattle on this Thursday -- we have five individuals in addition to the group chairman.

We will be organizing a cockpit voice recorder group and a flight data recorder group.

Concerning the witness group, this group has five individuals currently in addition to the group chairman.

And as the investigation progresses, other groups will be added.

In theory, even though many of these personnel who are assigned to these different working groups are from these what I term "designated parties to the investigation," in theory everyone is working for the NTSB as a collective unified team.

Our goal, obviously, is a very thorough investigation.

At our progress meeting, it was impressed upon everyone of the importance of the Safety Board's method for information dissemination. It was emphasized, as many of you, that only -- and as Ted just mentioned -- that only confirmed factual information will be released to the public via the news media.

Already we do have some information about the communications between Flight 261 and air traffic control. I want to emphasize that the information that I am about to relay is based on a rough transcript provided to us by FAA air traffic control. It will, of course, be verified by our investigative air traffic control group. It's basically taken from a draft summary transcript that was provided to us. It's information that appears to be accurate, but has not been totally documented.

As I go through this chronology of communications between Flight 261 and air traffic control, let me emphasize that nothing that I would say is to be considered to be an actual quote. It's summarized language.

The last routine transmission before the indication of a problem was at -- and I will put these times in Pacific Standard Time -- was at 3:55 Pacific Standard Time when air traffic control cleared Flight 261 to San Francisco via specific routing and to maintain flight level 310. And when I say 3:55, let me also emphasize that any of these times that are mentioned are approximate times and are not exact times. In other words, we had some times that had seconds to them and I just rounded them off to the minute.

After that transmission from air traffic control to clear Flight 261 to San Francisco, Flight 261 acknowledged it. Moving forward to 4:10 Pacific Standard Time, Flight 261 advised that they were having control difficulties and descended through 26,000 feet. A few seconds later the flight advised that they were at 23,700 feet and there was some discussion about their ability to control the aircraft. Within 10 seconds, air traffic control asked what altitude they wanted to remain.

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 trouble shooting. Flight 261 asked for a block of altitude between flight levels 200 and 250. That roughly equates to 20,000 and 25,000 feet. Air traffic control approved that request. At 4:14 Pacific Standard Time, air traffic control told them -- told Flight 261 to let them know if they needed anything. The flight responded, we're still working it, or something to that effect.

Several seconds later there was a discussion between two controllers regarding the handoff of the aircraft between one air traffic control sector and another. At 4:15 Pacific Standard Time, the flight was handed off to the next air traffic control sector. The new controller was aware of the flight situation. Several seconds later the crew checked in, advising that they had a jammed stabilizer and were experiencing difficulty maintaining altitude. But they thought that they could maintain altitude and intended to land at LAX, Los Angeles.

At approximately 4:16 Pacific Standard Time, the flight was cleared to LAX and asked if they wanted a lower altitude. The flight responded that they needed to get down to 10,000 feet to change -- also to change their configuration, that is the plane's flight configuration, and they wanted to do this over the bay, in other words, over the water. The controllers then issued a clearance to 17,000 feet. The flight crew acknowledged the clearance to 17,000 and advised they needed a blocked altitude and this was the last known transmission from Flight 261.

At 4:17 Pacific Standard Time, the flight advised -- was advised to go ahead and do that for now and contact another sector on a different frequency, and this particular air traffic control transmission was not acknowledged.

At 4:21 Pacific Standard Time, air traffic control lost radar contact with the flight. I mentioned when we begin to discussing radar data we are in the process of collecting that information. Well, that was what was reported by air traffic control people.

Moving now to some brief information from our structures group, as we call it, structures/air worthiness. I might mention preliminarily that, as many of you know, this morning the U.S. Coast Guard reported that the Navy has reported hearing a pinger in the area of the wreckage. We're obviously pursuing this. Side-scanning sonar and additional pinger detection equipment is on its way to the accident site from the East Coast right now. We are told that the water in the area of the debris field is approximately 700-feet deep. This group's intent, this working group's intent is to videotape the wreckage prior to any recovery.

And the last group I would like to make reference to in terms of our progress -- in terms of our organizational meeting this morning would be the operations group. The -- this group has identified a number of pilots, who were operating in the area, who witnessed the descent of the accident flight, four aircraft in particular: one, a Sky West flight, another, a private plane, an aerocommander, third, an Alaska Airlines flight that was following the accident flight, and possibly another aircraft. We're in the process of attempting to interview these people today. In fact, the captain on the Sky West flight was supposed to be at our command post here at 1:30, in fact, right now being interviewed.

And as I say, we arrived here at approximately 5:00 a.m. this morning. We've been here only about eight hours. We have the investigation organized in what we think is a very proper way. Our progress meeting lasted about an hour this morning. Our people currently are going their different directions. Most of us have had zero sleep and zero food for a long time.

But that's really at this early stage all that I have to relate to you. And I would, as Ted mentioned, I would be glad to field a few questions if you have them.


QUESTION: Do you have any idea -- you mentioned you're going to take some video first of the debris field before you go down. Do you have any idea when you might begin searching for these black boxes? Do you have any estimate?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: No, we haven't determined that yet.


QUESTION: When do we get to hear what he is telling your investigators?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, it's our policy, as I indicated earlier, as we proceed through this investigation -- and it's my personal policy at these briefings -- to relate all the factual information that we collect.

Therefore, I don't want to make predictions, but perhaps during the next press beefing or two that we hold we may have some information that may illuminate his observations.

QUESTION: Depends on what he says?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Whatever he tells us, I will try to report that to you.


QUESTION: ... the pilot of 261 (OFF-MIKE) that they wanted to change...


QUESTION: ... their flight configuration. They wanted to do it over the water. Can you tell us what that means in laymen's -- we don't understand that.

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, that simply means that they wanted to -- let's say the simplest way think of it is to deploy their wing flaps -- in other words, just slow the airplane down -- just change the flight configuration of the airplane's flight controls.

In other words, going from cruise flight, in which you have flaps at a particular setting, to an approach setting for those wing flaps. That's basically what it means.


QUESTION: ... overwater?


QUESTION: Why would they want to do it overwater?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, again, we're not going to try to analyze that. But that's -- that's what they indicated as saying on the air traffic control transcript.


QUESTION: ... captain of 261 made reference to the problem with the stabilizer, was he any more specific than your summary reflects?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: No, I don't think I can characterize it. This is -- this is -- let me remind you. This is a draft summary of the preliminary ATC transcript. And that's what we gathered from we what we were given.


QUESTION: ... at this point.

HAMMERSCHMIDT: That's correct. That's correct.


QUESTION: Is it normal for air traffic controllers to switch shifts in the middle of a disaster, a potential disaster?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, no, we're not talking about switching shifts. We're talking about switching sectors.

QUESTION: Can you tell us how that works?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, all of this air traffic control is being handled in this scenario by what's called Los Angeles Center. It's located in Palmdale, California. And they are basically a sector -- I mean, an air traffic control center is divided into many sectors. So when a plane transfers geographically from one airspace to another, it goes from one sector to another. And those sectors are controlled by different controllers.

So it's basically just handing it off to the next person responsible for that airspace.


QUESTION: ... give us an indication please of the altitude lost from the level that you were talking to these flight crews to the point of when they made impact. You indicated at several positions, but can you concise it for us?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: I don't want to do that analytical work right here off the top of my head. Like I said, I'm not operating on too much sleep right now.

But just -- but I give the indicated altitudes that were being reported. What we will do, of course, is we will correlate that with more precise radar data. And hopefully, we will be getting that, you know, as soon as possible, and we'll be able to -- to, as I say, make a more definitive correlation.

But this is just what's been indicated from an air traffic control transcript just to give -- just to give you an early indication of what the communications were between the flight and air traffic control. That's the point of mentioning that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) between when you lost contact and they made contact with the water, what can you tell us about that?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, that's analysis and I can't go there.


QUESTION: The Coast Guard said 4:30. Is it possible that there were nine minutes that transpired between last contact and the crash?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, the times that we have on this transcript, as I emphasized, are approximate. Therefore, we're not making any -- at this juncture especially -- any correlations between reported times from someone versus...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) -- is that accurate?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: No way I could evaluate that at this point.


QUESTION: How crucial has the effort been by those private (UNINTELLIGIBLE) out in the water that have been collecting debris? Is it what you want to see happen? Is it welcomed? Is it...

HAMMERSCHMIDT: Well, you need to address that more to the U.S. Coast Guard at this point, because right now the U.S. Coast Guard is still involved in a search-and-rescue operation, and that is their department. And until such time as they turn that over to us, that's...

QUESTION: Is that something you prefer from the NTSB standpoint?


HAMMERSCHMIDT: Not at this moment.


HAMMERSCHMIDT: Two more questionings. Don.

QUESTION: Mr. Hammerschmidt, can I get in? Can I get in? Two for one. One is, in all these handoffs, were the handoffs all within L.A. Center, including the final intended handoff, or did that go to -- was that going to approach control, No. 1?

HAMMERSCHMIDT: I was told that they were all within L,A. Center.

QUESTION: All within. And second is, was the word "trim" ever used, as in stabilizer trim, at any point during those conversations?

WATERS: John Hammerschmidt of the National Transportation Safety Board in for the past eight hours with what he calls his "go team," undergoing the preliminary setup of the working groups that will take over the investigation of the crash of Flight 261 once the Navy and Coast Guard get through with the search-and-rescue mission, which is still under way off the coast of California. The search for survivors continues.

But according to a draft summary, which Mr. Hammerschmidt pointed out is just a draft summary of the air traffic control transcript, we got a very good indication of the last moments.

He read off the painful transmissions between air traffic control and Flight 261.

I'll take it from 4:10 Pacific Time. This is 4:10 yesterday evening when Flight 261 advised L.A. control of difficulty and was descending to 26,000 feet. One minute later, the flight mentioned to air traffic control that the situation had been stabilized, but they would need some time to check on what the problem was.

Four minutes later, at 4:15 Pacific standard time, the flight advised air traffic control they were still working on it but advised of a jammed stabilizer. At 4:16, the flight was cleared to land at Los Angeles International Airport.

The pilot asked -- Flight 261 asked for clearance to 10,000 feet in order to change configurations, flight configurations, which was explained to us as adjusting the flaps from a cruise mode to a landing operation. And the flight asked if that reconfiguration could take place over water.

One minute later, the flight was cleared to 17,000 feet. There was no response. And at 4:21 Pacific standard time, all radar contact was lost.

That was the preliminary -- all times approximate. The preliminary. No quotes there. We were advised this was a draft summary, but much information in this initial briefing by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has yet to take over the investigation from the Navy and Coast Guard.

The Navy reports hearing a pinger, which could be from a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder. The hunt for that will conclude as soon as the Navy and Coast Guard is done, and there will be more information from NTSB as soon as they have it, we're told. John Hammerschmidt telling us that in the NTSB briefing just concluded.

I'm Lou Waters at CNN Center. We'll have more on this; as soon as we know about it, we'll pass it along to you.


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