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Breaking News

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 Crashes off California Coast

Aired January 31, 2000 - 10:52 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: Continuing our coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, an MD-80 with 88 people on board: 83 passengers, five crew members.

We rejoin Carl Rochelle, CNN Washington correspondent who is also a certified flight instructor, and on the phone, Susan Coughlin, CNN aviation analyst.

Carl, first to you. We heard reports that the pilot radioed some problem with the stabilizer trim.

Very briefly, talk about the controllability, the maneuverability and how they relate to the stabilizer trim.

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK, Jim. First off, just for people who don't know, let's show you what the stabilizers are. This is the horizontal stabilizer. This is the vertical stabilizer. It's associated with the rudder. The rudder is behind it. The horizontal stabilizer goes up and down. It controls the up and down movement of the airplane.

And there is a trim on that, a trim tab, which is a little section added to the very back part of this. I'll roll it so you can see -- added to the back end of this area. And it's controlled by electric motors and cables. And you can roll that up and down.

And what it does, it trims the control pressures off so that you can fly the plane stabilized in a climb, in level flight or in descent.

Now, it is normally operated by an electric switch on the control yoke of the pilot. The pilot pushes the switch forwards or backwards to cause the airplane to go up or down.

Now, if he has a problem with that, that would be a problem with the stabilizer trim. What you do for that is you go to manual trim. These are all set up so that you can -- first thing you do is pull the circuit breaker out of it and operate it by hand if you had to.

I just talked -- finished talking with a DC-9 pilot, retired airline pilot, who said he couldn't imagine a situation where a problem with the trim would cause the airplane could go down. His thought that perhaps the problem with the trim was a symptom of an even larger problem that may have caused the plane to go down. But that's what we're talking about when we talk about stabilizer trim and the problem with it, Jim.

MORET: Susan Coughlin, an NTSB team will be leaving Washington in a few hours, 11:00 to 12:00 midnight Pacific Time. The NTSB is involved, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy are involved in the search-and-recovery efforts.

Talk about the involvement of these various branches of government and how they work together and who controls the operation.

SUSAN COUGHLIN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, the NTSB will have a board member who will be the public spokesperson for the NTSB. They'll have an investigator in charge who will head up all of the investigative teams that they put together.

They'll have a maintenance group, a survival factors group, an operations group, weather, air traffic control, power plants, systems, human factors. They'll form a group that will probably go immediately to Mexico to look at the maintenance that was done in the last day or two.

And essentially, all of the investigative groups will report under the jurisdiction of the NTSB. Anybody having a connection to the accident -- in other words, the airframe manufacturer, the operator of the airplane, the engine manufacturer, sometimes the pilots' union, the air traffic controllers, the FAA -- they will all be assisting the NTSB in the investigation.

Right now, the search and rescue is under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard. But once the NTSB gets on scene and you shift from this rescue to a recovery operation, the Coast Guard, the Navy, the FBI will all aid the NTSB to the extent that they need it in the recovery mission.

But right now, obviously, what they're focusing on is rescue. The NTSB will be on scene within four or five hours, and presumably by that time they will have made a decision when they will shift from the rescue phase into the recovery and investigation portions of what the NTSB will head up.

MORET: Carl Rochelle, we've seen in recent air crashes the involvement of the FBI. Is there any word at this point whether the FBI will in fact become involved in this investigation?

ROCHELLE: They are on standby, Jim. And they always go on standby. It is regular procedure for them to go on stand by in a case like this.

If the NTSB sees any indication of criminal activity of any sort, they will call the FBI in to investigate this.

But this is standard procedure. The FBI goes on stand by for every crash. And unless there is criminal activity, they would not have a role, although if there is anything that they believe that the FBI can help them with in their criminal labs, National Transportation Safety Board won't hesitate to use that.

And I might -- I might tell Susan, Jim, that member John Hammerschmidt (ph) is going to be the board member who will be looking into this investigation. We were told that by Jim Hall, the chairman of the board, just a little while ago -- Jim.

MORET: Susan Coughlin, Carl Rochelle, thank you very much for your insights tonight.

This has been a special edition of CNN "NEWSSTAND." I'm Jim Moret in Los Angeles. Stay tuned to CNN for continuing coverage of the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261.

Our coverage continues right after these words.

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