- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

In the final terrifying moments of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which crashed off the southern California coast Jan. 31, a pilot warned Los Angeles air-traffic controllers that the plane was veering in and out of control, according to audiotapes released yesterday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We are, uh, in a dive here," the pilot, clearly winded, told tower controllers about 10 minutes before the crash. "We're out of 26,000 feet. We're in a vertical dive, not a dive yet, but, uh, we've lost vertical control of our airplane," he said, almost in a gasp.

Then, in a note of hope, he added, "Yeah, we've got it back under control there."

But seconds later, he reported, "No we don't."

The audiotapes underscored an effort by crew members to correct what they had reported earlier were problems with the jet's vertical stabilizer, a winglike horizontal portion of the tail responsible for ensuring level flight. Federal investigators are assessing the possible failure of the so-called jackscrew, a key part of the plane's tail stabilizer system.

Flight 261, bound from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco, crashed off California's Ventura County coast, killing all 88 passengers and crew members.

The tapes showed that shortly after the plane nose-dived from about 26,000 feet to about 24,000 feet, the pilots regained level flight for several minutes. The pilot who talked to controllers also reported that the MD-83 jet was "kinda stabilized. We're slowing down here and, uh, we're going, uh to do a little troubleshooting."

About five minutes before the crash, the pilot told controllers that the plane had descended further to 22,500 feet.

"We have a jammed stabilizer, and we're maintaining altitude with difficulty," he said, asking permission to land at the Los Angeles International Airport.

But the pilot, concerned about whether the jet could stay aloft as he maneuvered toward the airport, also asked if he could start his descent over water. He said he wanted to "make sure I can control the jet and I'd like to do that out here over the bay if I may."

Then, about four minutes before the crash, when controllers had cleared the jet to descend to 17,000 feet, the pilot sent his final transmission to the control tower. At that point he appeared calm and said only, "Thank you."

However, about a minute before the crash, other pilots in the area witnessed the jet's horrifying dive into the sea.

One of those pilots radioed: "That plane has just started to do a big, huge plunge." He added that the distressed jet was "inverted," that is, flying upside down.

The pilot of another plane, a Sky West Aviation jet, told controllers the Flight 261 jet was "nose down" and "descending quite rapidly, definitely out of control."

About five minutes from Flight 261's final transmission, both of the other planes' pilots said they saw the jet splash down. "He hit the water," one said. "He's down."

FAA officials declined to name the Flight 261 pilot whose voice was heard on the tapes. They also declined to comment on the tapes and referred questions to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is probing the cause of the crash.

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