Alaska Airlines Flight 261 departed Puerto Vallarta at about 14:30 PST for a flight to San Francisco and Seattle. En route to San Francisco a FL310 a problem arose with the stabilizer trim. At 16:10 the crew radioed Los Angeles ARTCC that they were having control problems and that they were descending through FL260. At 16:11 Los Angeles ARTCC asked the condition of the flight and were told that they were troubleshooting a jammed stabilizer. The crew requested, and were granted, a FL200-FL250 block altitude clearance. At 16:15 the crew were handed off to Los Angeles sector control. The Alaska Airlines crew reported problems maintaining their altitude and told their intentions to divert to Los Angeles International Airport. They were cleared to do so at 16:16. The crew then requested permission to descend to FL100 over water to change their aircraft configuration . Los Angeles cleared them to FL170. Last message from Flight 261 was when they requested another block altitude. The request was granted at 16:17, without a readback from the crew. During the descent the crew was also talking to Alaska Airlines maintenance personnel in Seattle and Los Angeles to troubleshoot their stabilizer trim problems. As the crew attempted to diagnose or correct the problem the out-of-trim condition became worse, causing a tendency for the plane to pitch nose-down. When preparing the plane for landing control was lost and the MD-83 was seen ‘tumbling, spinning, nose down, continuous roll, corkscrewing and inverted’. The aircraft crashed off Point Mugu in 650 feet deep water.

Cockpit voice recorder

 

Aircraft

The MD-83, serial number 53077, and registered as N963AS, was manufactured in 1992 and had logged 26,584 flight hours and 14,315 cycles before the crash.

Crew

The pilots of Flight 261 were both highly experienced aviators. Captain Ted Thompson, 53, had accrued 17,750 flight hours, and had more than 4,000 hours experience flying MD-80s. First Officer William (Bill) Tansky, 57, had accumulated 8,140 total flight hours, including about 8,060 hours as first officer in the MD-80. Neither pilot had been involved in an accident or incident prior to the crash.

Passengers

The three flight attendants and 47 of the passengers on board the plane were bound for Seattle. 32 passengers were traveling to San Francisco; three were bound for Eugene, Oregon; and one passenger was headed for Fairbanks, Alaska. Of the passengers, one was Mexican and one was British, with all others being American citizens.

At least 35 occupants of Flight 261 were connected in some manner with Alaska Airlines or its sister carrier Horizon Air, including twelve actual employees, leading many of the airlines’ personnel to mourn for those lost in the crash. Alaska Airlines stated that it was commonplace, on less busy flights, for employees to fill seats that would otherwise have been left empty. Bouquets of flowers started arriving at the company’s headquarters in SeaTac, Washington, the day after the crash.

“A loss of airplane pitch control resulting from the in-flight failure of the horizontal stabilizer trim system jackscrew assembly’s acme nut threads. The thread failure was caused by excessive wear resulting from Alaska Airlines’ insufficient lubrication of the jackscrew assembly.

Contributing to the accident were Alaska Airlines’ extended lubrication interval and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval of that extension, which increased the likelihood that a missed or inadequate lubrication would result in excessive wear of the acme nut threads, and Alaska Airlines’ extended end play check interval and the FAA’s approval of that extension, which allowed the excessive wear of the acme nut threads to progress to failure without the opportunity for detection. Also contributing to the accident was the absence on the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 of a fail-safe mechanism to prevent the catastrophic effects of total acme nut thread loss.”

Deepak Joshi (left) of the NTSB and John Scarola of Alaska Airlines prepare the Flight Data Recorder for transport from the MV Kellie Chouest on Feb 3, 2000

Recovered jackscrew – the spiral “wire” wrapped around the threaded portion is the remnants of the internal screw thread stripped from the acme nut

NTSB – final report

After the crash, Alaska Airlines management said that it hoped to handle the aftermath in a manner similar to that conducted by Swissair after the Swissair Flight 111 accident. They wished to avoid the mistakes made by Trans World Airlines in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 accident; in other words, to provide timely information and compassion to the families of the victims.

The victims’ families approved the construction of a memorial sundial, designed by Santa Barbara artist James “Bud” Bottoms, which was placed at Port Hueneme on the California coast. The names of each of the victims are engraved on individual bronze plates mounted on the perimeter of the dial. The sundial casts a shadow on a memorial plaque at 16:22 each January 31.

Captain Thompson and First Officer Tansky were both awarded the Air Line Pilots Association Gold Medal for Heroism, in recognition of their actions during the emergency. This is the only time the award has ever been given posthumously. The Ted Thompson/Bill Tansky Scholarship Fund was named in memory of the two pilots.

Both McDonnell Douglas and Alaska Airlines eventually accepted liability for the crash, and all but one of the lawsuits brought by surviving family members were settled out of court before going to trial. Candy Hatcher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said: “Many lost faith in Alaska Airlines, a homegrown company that had taken pride in its safety record and billed itself as a family airline.”

Steve Miletich of the Seattle Times wrote that the western portion of Washington State “had never before experienced such a loss from a plane crash”. Many residents of Seattle had been deeply affected by the disaster. As part of a memorial vigil in 2000, a column of light was beamed from the top of the Space Needle. Students and faculty at the John Hay Elementary School in Queen Anne, Seattle held a memorial for four Hay students who were killed in the crash. In April 2001, John Hay Elementary dedicated the “John Hay Pathway Garden” as a permanent memorial to the students and their families who were all killed on Flight 261. The City of Seattle public park Soundview Terrace was renovated in honor of the four Pearson and six Clemetson family members who were killed on board Flight 261 from the same Seattle neighborhood of Queen Anne. The park’s playground was named “Rachel’s Playground” in memory of six-year-old Rachel Pearson, who was on board the MD-83 and who was often seen playing at the park.

Two victims were falsely named in paternity suits as the fathers of children in Guatemala in an attempt to gain insurance and settlement money. Subsequent DNA testing proved these claims to be false.

The crash has appeared in various advance fee fraud (“419”) email scams, in which a scammer uses the name of someone who died in the crash to lure unsuspecting victims into sending money to the scammer by claiming the crash victim left huge amounts of unclaimed funds in a foreign bank account. The names of Morris Thompson and Ronald and Joyce Lake were used in schemes unrelated to them.

As of August 2018, Flight 261 no longer exists. The flight route designation for this route is now Flight 223. Alaska Airlines continues to operate the Puerto Vallarta–San Francisco–Seattle/Tacoma route. The Puerto Vallarta–Seattle/Tacoma direct route is Flight 279. The airline retired the last of its MD-80s in 2008 and now uses Boeing 737s for this route.

Notable passengers

  • Jean Gandesbery, author of the book Seven Mile Lake: Scenes from a Minnesota Life, died alongside her husband, Robert.
  • Cynthia Oti, an investment broker and financial talk show host at San Francisco’s KSFO-AM.
  • Tom Stockley, wine columnist for The Seattle Times.
  • Morris Thompson, commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1973 to 1976, died alongside his wife Thelma and daughter Sheryl.
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