An Alaska Airlines MD-83 jetliner that originated in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and was headed for San Francisco and Seattle, crashed in the Pacific Ocean at 4:36 p.m. PST Monday.
On Tuesday morning, search crews said hope of finding survivors was diminished, following an unsuccessful overnight search.
Flight 261, carrying 88 passengers, reported mechanical problems before contacting Los Angeles International Airport. It was cleared to return there for an emergency landing. It reportedly left radar tracking at 17,000 feet.
There were no signs of survivors as darkness came. Several bodies had been removed from the ocean prior to sunset. The Coast Guard said every effort was being made to search the 58-degree water for survivors.
The flight had 83 people on board and a crew of five.
A National Park Service ranger on Anacapa Island near the crash site reportedly observed the jet going nose first into the ocean, according to a Channel Islands National Park spokesperson.
The location of the crash was about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport. Debris was seen floating in an area about 8 to 10 miles off the Ventura County coast south of Oxnard, Calif. The Coast Guard and commercial squid boats were searching the debris field in water from 300 feet to 750 feet deep.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators were expected on the scene by 5:30 a.m. PST Tuesday.
The MD-83 was part of the MD-80 series commercial aircraft built by McDonnell Douglas which is now part of Boeing. The plane that crashed had been delivered to Alaska Airlines in 1992 and had undergone service checks as recently as yesterday.
Reports on Tuesday morning indicated the MD-80 series is part of a federal criminal investigation started by a “whistle-blower,” employee who alleged that a supervisor falsified maintenance records on two MD-80s at Alaska’s Oakland maintenance facilities. The FAA did not confirm if this aircraft is one of those two planes. The FAA, while conducting the investigation, recommended that the mechanic licenses of three Alaska supervisors be revoked for making false entries on records. The FAA also proposed a $44,000 fine against the airline.
In addition, the FAA concluded that the two MD-80 jets were flown 844 times over three months in an “unairworthy condition,” because some maintenance records had not been filled out.
Alaska president and CEO John Kelly told MSNBC that internal and external audits showed “glowing remarks.” He also said the MD-83 that crashed was not one of those cited in the allegations.
Alaska Airlines said the pilot reported having problems with the “stabilizer trim,” a portion of the tail that controls upward, downward and horizontal stabilization of the aircraft.
Jack Evans, spokesman for the airline, said the jet had no previous stabilizer problems, and FAA spokesman John Clabes said it had never been in an accident. Evans also said the plane went through a low-level maintenance check on Jan. 11 and a more extensive routine check last January.
Until this afternoon’s crash, Alaska Airlines had an impeccable safety record. It had not had a fatal accident in almost 25 years.
The most recent Alaska Airlines fatal accident before Monday was in 1976. One person died when a Boeing 727 overran a runway at Ketchikan, Alaska. In 1971, 111 died when an Alaska Airlines 727 crashed into a mountain on approach to Juneau, Alaska.
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