On January 31, 2000, about 1621 Pacific standard time, Alaska Airlines, Inc., Flight 261, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83, N963AS, crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 2.7 miles north of Anacapa Island, California. The 2 pilots, 3 cabin crewmembers, and 83 passengers on board were killed, and the airplane was destroyed by impact forces. Flight 261 was operating as a scheduled international passenger flight under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 121 from Lic Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Seattle, Washington, with an intermediate stop planned at San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, California. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight, which operated on an instrument flight rules flight plan.
I have a personal connection with this crash. On that day, I was working as a Ramp Agent with Reno Airlines at McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, Nevada. Alaska was our ramp neighbors and we flew the same MD-83. We were outside, waiting for our jet to come to the gate. Looking over at the Alaska gates, I saw that all Hell was breaking loose. People were running like their hair was on fire. Flight 261 had left from here bound for Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Before the end of my shift all our aircraft were grounded. With nothing to do, I wandered over to the maintenance office. Two Reno mechanics worked there and they had orders to inspect the tails of the eight jets at out gates. I had an Airframe and Powerplant license and sometimes I’d help them when they were slammed. They knew the cause of the crash before the NTSB figured it out. “I bet it’s the jack screw”, said one of them. They told me what to look for and I watched an inspection. Under Part 139 of the FAA regulations, that made me qualified to look at the tail assembly. Since Flight 261, the requirements have been tightened up a bit.
I was looking for obvious damage and missing parts. In addition, I was told to “Make damn sure the trim jack has evidence of grease. ” The inspection of the stabilizer trim system was part of a C Check inspection carried out at two year intervals for the MD-80 series. The Emergency Air Worthiness Notice issued by the FAA make it mandatory that the aircraft be inspected before they flew again. I learned just how much of bitch it was to do the inspection. Taking the panel off was a breeze but it was a bitch to push the big assed maintenance ladder around. I wound up doing two inspections. They had grease, and all our jets had grease. Don’t know what happened at Alaska, they weren’t talking.
The FAA busted Alaska airlines for pencil-whipping their tail inspections. Pencil-whipping is signing off work or an inspection youo didn’t do. Yes, it’s frowned upon and even illegal, but it’s also a widespread practice. Take intake inspections. You’re supposed to climb into the intake and inspect the engine for damage. If an engine suffers foreign object damage, it’s obvious. On some aircraft, you can peek down the tube with flashlight and do the inspection without actually climbing in. Pilots do it all the time on their walk around. Watch them do it the next time you fly. At Creech AFB, we had a guy whip an intake inspection because he thought the other guy had done it. That’s called “inspecting from the truck”. The A-10 probably ingested some of it’s own brass on the flight to Nellis but since they couldn’t confirm that with the inspection at Creech, they were busted, fined and retrained.