There I was flying along at 13,000 feet with no feeling of alarm. Goldfish, my dad said. My family and I sat there in first class on an Alaska Airlines DC-10 on our way to Disney Land. The cards kept us happy along with the constant Sprite refills we received. As a little kid, that is all I could possibly want, a good game of goldfish with my dad and constant bags of peanuts. My ride was going great. All of the sudden I felt the Sprite and peanuts rise to my chest. Before I could think about it, meal trays were spilt, our cards were scattered, and everyone was talking. We have just experienced some heavy turbulence, the pilot announced. We lost 2500 feet in one second. It made me think of how quickly our airplane could have hit the ground.
Air travelers are constantly coming up with concerns about traveling safety. Among these concerns is airworthiness. Is an airplane safe to fly? This is a concern because people want to feel confident they are safe when aboard an airplane. Most of us have been on an airplane, for a family vacation, business trip, or maybe to visit the relatives on the holidays. I am sure the thought of crashing has gone through everyone s mind. What if there were a crash and my friends and I were on board? What went wrong? What caused the crash? These are the questions investigators are trying to answer regarding Alaska flight 261.
My research began at the CWU library where I found my self on CATRAX, the CWU search system. You can search for books, magazines, topics, authors, and exc. Being a pilot myself, I am interested in aviation, and the recent Alaska Airline crash was all over the news. I thought this would make the perfect topic. The process of research was easy because of the Internet. I first tried our CWU library. Due to my topic being recent, I had a hard time finding sources, so I got on the Internet. I learned from the news, the aircraft that crashed was Seattle based, so I decided to search the Seattle Times newspaper for some articles. To my delight I found a time line of articles. I had a lot of information to sort through, the topic about damaged parts found in the ocean from the airplane and what those parts can tell us stuck out in my head. I found my article and it fueled my interest of the topic.
The article, Experts differ on what damage to Flight 261 jackscrew may mean by The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, relates the importance of a piece of wreckage that may have been clearly damaged before impact. The piece is called the jackscrew assembly, which controls the angle of the stabilizer, the horizontal part of the tail. Gene Daub, a senior air-crash investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration s Transportation Safety Institute in Oklahoma City, states that there are three pieces of evidence, which suggest damage prior to the crash. The stabilizer was jammed in the full nose down position before the crash, threads appear to have striped spirally on the jackshaft, possibly the automatic shutoff failed to work when in complete nose down position, and possibly dirt in the shaft caused it not to operate smoothly. ( Experts differ, par. 7) A retired pilot, Barry Schiff is 80 % sure the damaged occurred prior to the crash, but is still unsure. ( Experts differ, par. 11)
None of these facts are positive because of the disagreement among investigators and the incompletion of the tests. The theories behind why the jackscrew was damaged before the crash are good ones, but how could it have been damaged during the crash? The damaged evidence is too perfect. It seems to me that the answer wouldn t come that easy. It is my opinion that any four of the damage possibilities could have happened while the airplane was tumbling towards the ground or on impact. There must have been a problem prior to the crash. In my experience reading about airline crashes, I would be interested more if the author had included facts about how the jackscrew could have been damaged during the crash itself.
Investigators have discovered damaged parts to Alaska flight 261, but yet have been able to determine the cause of those damaged parts. It takes many test and hours to come to a factual conclusion about the cause of the accident. Was there any warning signs or problems prior to the crash? This is the question I ask. This is the next topic I will explore. Eventually investigators will find the cause of crash that killed 88 people.
I turned to the CWU library computers once again. Besides the fact I had to wait around for an open computer my search at the Seattle Times homepage went smooth. I found two articles about problems in the aircraft before the crash. I found one article about parts falling off and one about stabilizer problems. I found the one about stabilizer problems to be more beneficial to my research.
The article Data hint at 2 hours of stabilizer problems for Flight 261 by Chuck Taylor, a Seattle Times aerospace reporter reports the questions about the stabilizer on the Alaska airplane the day of the crash. The flight data suggests control problems on Alaska Flight 261 might have begun shortly after the plane departed Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The plane was heading towards San Francisco and Seattle on January 31. (Data par.1) After two hours the situation facing the crew deteriorated rapidly. The final result was a minute-long, upside-down dive that killed all 88 people on board.
The questions about the control problem directly relates to the horizontal stabilizer, the small wing on the tail of the plane that tilts to change the angle of flight. Two motors control the stabilizer, a high speed motor for manual flight on takeoff and landings and a slow speed motor when using the autopilot for cruise flight. A circuit malfunction in one of those motors can cause the stabilizer to tilt to its maximum angle. (Data par. 13)
Captain Ted Thompson and 1rst Officer William Tansky was faced with a stabilizer that would only move in one direction the one that would make the plane tend to nose down. (Data par. 14) To keep the plane level they would have had to hold back on the control wheel. The crew communicated this problem by radio early in the flight, along with the fact that the crew flew without the autopilot for 1 hour and 53 minutes. This is the only evidence so far to suggest the airplane had stabilizer problems prior to the crash, according to NTSB Chairman Jim Hall. (Data par. 5) Typically the autopilot is used for most phases of flight, and it is unlikely it would have not been used because of the distractions and extra work. (Data par. 18) There is evidence from the flight data recorder that both motors at one point may have not been working because the flight trim was only adjusted in a nose-down direction, Hall said. (Data par. 24) It is still unclear weather the stabilizer moved on its own or by the pilots, but it is clear the stabilizer was in the full acute position 12 minutes before Flight 261 dived towards the Earth. (Data par. 23)
This article brings a lot of questions to my mind. What caused a short in the stabilizer motors? How did both motors short out? These are the questions I ask. These are the questions the investigators will eventually answer. Reading this article has given me an appreciation for the job of an NTSB officer. It makes me think of how complex an airline crash investigation is. Everything from satellite pictures, radar reports, salvage, and reconstruction of the airplane from wrecked parts. The NTSB is always exploring every possible answer. That is why it takes so long to find answers. Even though it frustrated me when I read the article, I was left with many more questions. I am confident those questions will be answered as time follows.
As the investigation grows, the complete wreckage is recovered, flight data analyzed, and flight personal interviews conducted, the answers to the crash will come out. What about the time in between, where there is no answer! Do passengers want to fly on Alaska s airplanes? My next topic explores the question of weather passengers are scared of Alaska airlines and MD-80 airplanes.
I was again staring at the computer. This time I had a steaming cup of coffee and a Rooster chew to accompany me. In the comfort of my own home I once again visited the Seattle Times homepage to see if there had been a poll conducted after the accident. To my surprise I found one and the headline answered my question.
Poll: Crash isn t scaring travelers away by Chuck Taylor, is the article I found. The poll studies boarding patterns and market trends of Seattle following the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261. The U.S. Department of Transportation compiled the data. (Poll par.1) The U.S. department of Transportation answers two questions: How was Alaska traffic affected by the news of the crash? Did passengers shun the MD-80 family of planes nationwide in the weeks after the January 31 accident? It polled 427 households statewide. Some of the findings are subject to a 5 percent margin of error. (Poll par. 2)
The results of the survey were: seventy-five percent of respondents indicated the accident would not affect a decision to fly Alaska Airlines in the future, while 19 percent said their likelihood of flying Alaska has decreased. (Poll par. 3) The poll also asked questions about the aftermath of the crash and aviation safety. Ninety seven percent said, Alaska responded in the aftermath of the crash as well as, or better than, other airlines in similar situations. (Poll par. 4) Two thirds of the polls respondents believe aviation safety has increased in the past decade. (Poll par. 5) The survey reinforced the fact that people are confident in airline travel despite the terrible crash. People still realize aviation safety is improving and that the airlines intentions are to be safe.
Everything you do in life carries risk and I think people realize that. I know I do. If you look at statistics you have a far greater chance of dying on your way to the airport in car then in a actual airplane. As a pilot my self, I am pleased at the results of this survey and hope airline safety continues to get better.
As a result of briefly looking into Alaska Airlines Flight 261, I have learned passengers do feel safe aboard airplanes and how quickly tragic things can happen aboard a airplane. The sky is a place where there is no room for error and pilots must be ready for every situation. It is comforting to know that when a situation surpasses a pilot s ability and results in tragedy that there are teams of investigators solving the problems, and making new regulations so the same incident won t happen again. That is why passengers feel confident in airline safety. It is rare that airlines will make the same mistake twice. As a result of the Alaska crash I am sure Alaska airlines will be even safer, and all stabilizer components will be inspected and replaced more frequently as you can already see on the news.