‘Ah, here we go’: Jan. 31, 2000, the day Flight 261, bound for Seattle plunged into the Pacific Ocean, all 88 lost

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On Jan. 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261, bound for Seattle from a Mexican resort town, plunged into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, with all 88 souls on board lost.

The flight had taken off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, heading for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with a stop scheduled in San Francisco. Over half of the people onboard were heading to Seattle, and three of the crew members were Seattle based.

Among the 88 killed were Alaskan Morris Thompson, who had been commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alaska from 1973 to 1976, along with his wife Thelma and daughter Sheryl. Thompson had recently retired as the CEO of Doyon Ltd., a Native corporation in Alaska.

Capt. Ted Thompson and First Officer William Tansky struggled to control the McDonnell Douglas MD-83, for two hours.

“Folks, we have had a flight-control problem up front here,” Thompson announced over the jet’s speaker. The passengers knew it, of course, as the plane had just made a dive from 31,000 feet to 23,000 feet. “We have a jammed stabilizer and we’re maintaining altitude with difficulty…our intention is to land at Los Angeles.”

Thompson radioed to the control tower, but as the pilots attempted to get to redirect to Los Angeles for an emergency landing, the plane went topsy turvy, and then went into an uncontrolled nosedive from 17,000 feet.

Thompson’s final recorded words were “Ah, Here we go.”

The recovered flight recorder data later showed the plane crashed into the ocean at 4:22 pm Pacific time, at about 200 miles per hour.

Read the transcript of the pilots’ communication as they tried to control the aircraft.

The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board led to problems with a two-foot-long jackscrew, and a lack of grease on the jackscrew, which had caused the threads to be stripped, resulting in the horizontal stabilizer jamming and putting the aircraft in a nose-down position. The aircraft had no backup system to protect it in the event of a loss of the function of the jackscrew.

Alaska Airlines and Boeing, which had bought the McDonnell Corp., ended up settling 87 of the 88 wrongful death lawsuits by 2003. The settlements were sealed but the entire amount was believed to be $300 million. Lawyers for the family pointed out that it was not merely the crash, but that the people on board had gone through two separate free falls of 80 seconds and 90 seconds, adding to the trauma of their deaths. The final lawsuit, brought by the family of passenger Joan Smith, was still in court in 2004 and the outcome is unclear.

Read the account by the leader of the NTSB team that investigated the crash at Aviation Maintenance Magazine.

(Side note, on that fateful day, Alaska Airlines President William Ayers was in the office of the editor of the Juneau Empire, at the same time that the plane went down, a fact he learned about after leaving the building. This writer was the editor of the newspaper and saw the alert on the Associated Press wire just moments after Ayer had departed the building to meet with officials at the Alaska Department of Transportation in the building next door. Ayers was making his rounds of the Capital City during the first few weeks of the legislative session, and learned of the missing plane at about the same time the news was just appearing in newsrooms as an AP alert.)

30 COMMENTS

  1. The settlements were higher because the plane experienced two uncontrolled dives before finally crashing. Are they saying it would have been better if the pilot hadn’t recovered from the previous two dives, and just let it crash during the first one?

  2. Actually, it was the wrong type of grease on the jackscrew that ate up the threads. $20 mistake.
    RIP, #two-six-one.

    • Aviation Maintenance Magazine (linked above) had a pretty good write up on it.
      Replacement for an out of spec worn jackscrew was $80,000. An Oakland head mechanic called for it being replaced 2 years before the accident, however the plane was put back in service a few days later without replacement because they claimed 5 more spec tests were done and found it to be within specs.
      Both types of grease were tested and deemed relatively equal.
      Worn down threads on the Acme nut of the jackscrew, improper greasing methods, and FAA approved excessive maintenance and jackscrew spec inspection intervals.

      • Two other Alaska MD-80’s also had worn threads on their jackscrews, after inspection, following #261 crash. Scary!!

  3. Not the first for Alaska Air. Flt# 1866 crashed into the mountains near Juneau on September 4, 1971. The Boeing 727 hit the mountain under cloud cover, killing all 111 passengers and crew. The guidance systems back then were not that good and 1866 was using an approach from the west over mountainous terrain.

    • I was flying into Juneau from Seattle the next day and we overheaded to Anchorage. Sad time. – sd

    • My father was scheduled to be on that airplane, but he was stuck in Klawock. No way to know that back then. We waited many frightful hours before we knew he was okay, just late.

    • There’ve been at least three major crashes within a few miles of the same spot; the AS 727, the ANG C-12, and a medivac Lear. All seem to have a similar cause; inattention to or misinterpretation of the instruments causing the flight deck to think they were much closer to JNU than they actually were. Unfortunately, there were some 10K’ mountains in the way.

      I didn’t like thinking about what was outside the windows as we came down Gastineau Channel from the south to approach JNU, but I liked trusting GPS more than trusting analog instruments from the ’50s and ’60s.

    • Good read. Thanks, Sam. When Thompson and Tansky heard the loud bang coming from the back, they knew they were in trouble. That was the sound of the jackscrew ripping through the worn threads and breaking past the stop nut, due to the pressure load placed on the horizontal stabilizer. It must have been sickening to hear, the sound that their plane was doomed. All of those precious seconds ticking by, knowing that it’s the end. RIP.

  4. Back in those days we went to PVR every year in mid to late January or early February for a few weeks. We lived in Juneau so we were prisoners of Alaska Airlines and both ran up a lot of miles. We considered a couple of First Class tickets to Mexico every year to be a part of our compensation package.

    The crash really struck me even though we both had hundreds of thousands of miles and I’d survived bending a couple of airplanes. We’d made that same flight many times. One of my fonder memories is flying home from PVR in First with a cold chateau briand, some fancy salad, and a lot of really good French wine. Think that’s the last good meal I ever had on Alaska.

    Because of what I did for a living I knew a bit about Alaska’s labor relations issues. In those days they had a struggle between their own maintenance employees and out-sourced maintenance. Whenever you heard some complaint about Alaska’s maintenance, you never knew if it was real or union propaganda. And the Government wasn’t really neutral in the matter either.

    I never liked the MD-80s; they were so very slow and it is a long way from PVR to SFO or SEA; you really didn’t want that non-stop from SEA to PVR on an MD-80. You’d think you were going to die of old age.

    To the point, my wife and I could have easily have been on that plane. The thoughts of those last minutes have gone through my mind many times. There but for the grace of God.

  5. Thanks for this rememberance, Suzanne. Morrie Thompson, his wife, and daughter were aboard. All from Fairbanks. After that accident, Alaska Air got rid of it’s MD-88’s and went to all 737’s. McDonnel-Douglas had a good air frame. Interestingly, last September a Dehavilland Otter on floats crashed near Whidbey Island in WA State. It was a site-seeing flight and all perished. The NTSB hasn’t disclosed the cause, but all indications show that the jackscrew to the elevator trim failed. Same as Alaska Flight 261.
    Good maintenance is so important.

    • I remember that, and all 10 aboard that plane perished on that flight. They grounded those aircraft immediately, I recall. – sd

  6. My wife and I were at a social gathering in Anchorage when word came out about the crash. You could feel the chill come over the room, as people realized that it would likely, somehow, personally affect many of those present in the coming days.

  7. I too was in Juneau when this happened, and I remember that day well.
    I’ve thought often of those people’s last minutes (2 hours) leading up to that final plunge into the ocean….

  8. I was on AA that day going to work in Montana – my 6 year old was watching tv , saw the news flash and asked Mom “ is that the plane daddy’s on “. Yesterday on takeoff the 737 pulled both engines almost at rotation in Anchorage- amazing how thoughts work through your brain then

    RIP to all those on board that flight and their families

  9. When you compare the jackscew bearing to the one used on a 727, an aircraft of similar gross weight, it is minuscule. Douglass kept the same design as used for the DC-9 when this aircraft was developed. Despite a horrific flight test program, this plane was approved. It was always an accident waiting to happen. They went to a lot of trouble to produce a two seat aircraft to save the airlines from hiring an engineer.

    • A B-727-200, the variant in use by AS in the ’80s and ’90s is a quarter to a third greater gross weight than an MD-80.

    • Trig,
      Three in the pit in the 60’s and 70’s was standard.
      Companies called it “feather-bedding.” But how could three up front save a plane doomed by mechanical failure? I’d rather have an extra mechanic in the hanger.

      • Art, I was referring to the 727-100, which held about the same passenger load. William, if you don’t see the advantage of an extra crewmember in the cockpit, talk to an old timer. The mechanic in the hanger doesn’t fly in the ship. Many of them won’t. I witnessed the flight test of the MD-80 which was conducted in secrecy at Edwards AFB in the late 70’s. When the tail section separated from the fuselage during landing, they dismissed the event and guarded the hanger for weeks while it was rebuilt by over 500 mechanics so it could complete the certification. The plane was poorly designed. The government deemed it safe. You do the math.

  10. I remember that crash all too well. We had friends coming back from Puerto Vallarta and thought they were on that flight. It took a couple of days to find out they weren’t. Terrible time and RIP to those that were.

  11. Alaska Airlines was well-known for its shoddy maintenance. The NTSB revisited their maintenance department 1 year after this crash and found that nothing had changed, and it probably hasn’t to this day.

    • With Alaska Airlines you’re never sure what is union/Democrat propaganda and what is a safety issue. If there is a Democrat federal administration all the communist cell, excuse me, the Machinists’ Union has to do is drop a dime to a friend in the FAA or Department of Labor and Alaska Airlines has a “shoddy maintenance” problem. The best thing Alaska Airlines could do for its mainenance program is go to a private contractor in a right to work state and get away from the communists in the Seattle Oblast.

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