- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002


Federal investigators believe lack of grease on a tail component caused the January 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the California coast, killing all 88 persons aboard.

A draft report that will be considered today by the National Transportation Safety Board blames insufficient lubrication for excessive wear and failure of the MD-80's jackscrew, which helps move the plane's stabilizer and sets the angle of flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been criticized for inadequate monitoring of airlines' maintenance programs. Initial investigation of the Alaska Airlines crash indicated that the agency had overlooked problems with the company's maintenance program.

After the crash, the FAA reviewed the maintenance programs of nine major airlines and reported in February that the carriers had made improvements.

The Transportation Department's inspector general, though, reported in April that the FAA's inspectors were inadequately trained and that the agency must do a better job identifying safety problems.

Crash investigators concluded that the jackscrew mechanism jammed soon after the jet took off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, headed to San Francisco and Seattle. The pilots were planning to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles when the stabilizer broke off, causing the plane to roll over and plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

The Seattle-based airline has said the failure of the jackscrew mechanism resulted from extreme wear caused by a kind of grease recommended by Boeing Co. The airline also blamed the design, saying the threads on the nut of the jackscrew assembly failed.

Boeing, which bought the plane's manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas, in 1997, said it was lack of grease not the type that led to the failure. The jet that crashed went "an extended period without adequate lubrication," Boeing has said.

In addition to the federal inquiry, Alaska Airlines and Boeing face dozens of wrongful-death suits that are scheduled for trial in April.

Liz Verdier, a Boeing spokeswoman, said the company will wait for the final report before commenting.

A call to Alaska Airlines seeking comment was not immediately returned.

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