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Larry King Live

Alaska Airlines Jet Crashes Off California Coast

Aired January 31, 2000 - 9:00 p.m. ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Good evening, this is Larry King. We, of course, have changed and canceled our guests planned for this evening to stay with this major airline story.

We have, standing by in Los Angeles, Charles Feldman, our CNN correspondent there. In Washington, D.C. is Carl Rochelle, an expert at these kind of tragedies. He is a licensed pilot. And with us on the phone is Susan Coughlin, CNN aviation expert.

We'll start with Charles.

Want to bring us right up to date with the story as we know it until now.

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Larry, it is fairly sketchy, as one might expect when you have a plane crash such as this. But we do know it was an Alaska Airlines aircraft. There is some dispute now about whether or not it was an MD-80 or a Boeing 737 jetliner. That has not yet been resolved. Both of these aircraft, by the way, are what are call narrow-bodied aircraft, not the jumbo jets like the 747s or larger DC-10s.

It took off from Mexico. It was on a nonstop flight to San Francisco, Flight number 261. And at around 3:45 this afternoon California time, as we understand it, there was a call of distress from the pilot of that craft. Apparently, some sort of mechanical difficulty. The pilot wanted to land at Los Angeles International Airport, but obviously did not make it. We don't know if he was on the way down to the airport or whether he was still electing what to do at the time of the crash.

And I believe that the latest figure was 70 people known to be onboard. But as you know, Larry, when these things happen, facts tend to come slowly and often are conflicting. So things that we now think might be the case in a half hour or an hour's time may turn out to be totally different.

KING: There were reports, Charles, earlier on one of our affiliates that the plane disappeared from the radar at 17,000 feet. Is that acknowledged?

FELDMAN: Well, one of the reports that I heard actually listening to some of the local television coverage here quoting some officials said that the aircraft was last seen by air traffic control at 17,000 feet, and then it was lost from radar. If that's true, by the way, that would indicate that the aircraft was not at cruising altitude. Whether it was an MD-80 or a 737, it would not, in all probability, be at 17,000 feet en route from Mexico to San Francisco. Seventeen thousand feet is a much lower altitude than these jetliners would normally fly at. So that in and of itself might be some clue as to what was going on inside that cockpit, although a very slim clue.

KING: Carl Rochelle in Washington, you're a licensed pilot. Both of these planes, whether a 737 or an MD-80, are twin-engine aircraft, right?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly, yes. The difference is where the wings are, Larry. That's the basic difference to the eye. On the 737, the engines are out on the wings. In the MD-80 or DC-9 or whichever iteration, they're all upgrades and modernizations of the old standard to the DC-9. Both are fuselage mounted back by the tail section.

Let me give you a couple of takes on something from the last conversation. It could have disappeared off the radar scope, but I would remind you that the EgyptAir 990 disappeared off the radar scope, and the initial take on that that I was told by a very senior official was that it just disappeared. But after they began to look at other radar tracks from other radar stations, in fact we now know that they tracked it all the way down and then back up and then back down again. So whereas it may have disappeared off of that particular radar scope at that altitude, it may have been on other radars. And there could be a couple of reasons for that.

What they are primarily looking at on the radar screens is something the aviation community used to call ATC-RBS. But it's the transponder return. That is the primary means of identifying an aircraft on the en route radar scopes. And if that disappeared, that could just mean the transponder went off.

KING: I...

ROCHELLE: And another take on this...

KING: Without getting personal, I've lost an engine on a plane. I've had the oxygen masks drop, I've lost a hydraulic system. In all cases, the plane eventually went down and landed. Can you give me some thoughts as to what -- and this, we'll bring in Susan on this, too -- what can happen to an aircraft, assuming it's at 28,000 feet and it's flying from Mexico to San Francisco, what kind of thing could happen to cause it the stress at that altitude to bring it down right away?

ROCHELLE: It would have to be catastrophic. It would not be just something like an engine. And to an airline transport pilot and a transport-level jet aircraft, losing an engine is of course serious but certainly not fatalistic. They're trained to fly. Of course, their planes, all of them, have the capability not only to fly with one engine, they can all take off and land with one engine. They have that much redundancy and power. So that wouldn't the case. A loss of cabin pressure? Well, they have backup oxygen not only for the passengers but also a very heavy-duty oxygen system for the crew up front. So something would have to break on a major level for that plane to come down.

KING: Could...

ROCHELLE: Let me give you the 17,000 feet that we talked about. And the reason for that may be that my understanding is that they had declared an emergency and were returning into Los Angeles International Airport, in which case they would have been probably descending through 17,000, maybe even more than that, trying to get down to an altitude that could put them into a landing situation.

Fire could be an answer. A fire could cause something like that. A breakup of the air frame could cause something like that. It is not absolutely clear that that is exactly what happened.

And, you know, one of the questions between the 37 and a DC-9, is a 737, you know, had a number of rudder problems that they thought they had fixed, they thought they had figured out. A DC-9 to my knowledge has had no problems like that, so...

KING: Yes, by the way, when you say DC-9, you mean MD-80.

ROCHELLE: I'm sorry, I'm...

KING: MD-80 is a modern version of the DC-9.

ROCHELLE: MD-80 is a modern version of the DC-9. Ridden them all, as have you.

KING: And as now, there's an MD-90, in fact.

Susan Coughlin, would you agree? Are you with us on the phone?


KING: OK, Susan's our CNN aviation expert. And again, this is all speculative. If you tuned in to watch LARRY KING LIVE, this is me. We have had an airplane crash of a flight -- Alaska Airlines Flight 261 from Puerto Vallarta scheduled to San Francisco. The crash occurred about 17 to 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport.

Susan Coughlin on the phone, would you agree with everything Carl said?

COUGHLIN: Yes, I would have to say that we're probably looking at something fairly catastrophic that they would ask for permission to land at LAX rather than continue their flight and then not be able to make the emergency approach into the airport.

KING: Charles Feldman, you are also a pilot. Could severe turbulence do something to an aircraft? FELDMAN: Well, Larry, there are cases where very severe turbulence has been known to cause some problems with aircraft. But generally a commercial airline which has, not to get too technical, what's called heavy wing loading, which means it handles pretty well in turbulent conditions, is not likely to experience the kind of catastrophic problem that would cause it to crash into the ocean, especially not if it encounters that turbulence at cruise altitude, as opposed to what they call wind shear, which is a violent change in wind direction, which can cause problems on either takeoff or landing.

But one thing that is interesting, as you mentioned, I do fly light aircraft, small aircraft, and fly around that area quite often. And what's interesting to me is the area in which that aircraft went down. There were two other airports -- and this may give a clue as to how urgent this situation was -- there were two other airports that that aircraft could have, if it was in some sort of a controlled descent, landed on. There is both an Air Force base, Point Mugu Air Force Base, which, in an emergency, certainly would allow a commercial civilian airliner to land. It has a very long runway that can handle aircraft all the way up to jumbo jets.

And it was also, the crash site, fairly close to Santa Barbara Airport, which, while its runways are not nearly as long as Point Mugu's, could accommodate, to my knowledge, either an MD-80 or a 737 aircraft.

So my suspicion is that if the pilot had any kind of positive control of that aircraft and couldn't make it back to Los Angeles International Airport, he could have set down at any one of those two fields. And he would have known based on the computer images that he has on his aircraft and air traffic control that those airports would have been available to him or her.

KING: Susan, Alaska Airlines has a great safety record. Also, they have lots of gates at LAX -- that may have been one of the reasons they would choose to go to that airport, an airport probably very familiar to them. What do you -- what's your read on this so far?

COUGHLIN: Well, there's such sketchy information available right now, Larry. I mean, we're not even -- we haven't even confirmed the type of aircraft, although everybody seems to be narrowing in on MD- 80. I'm sure that that will be...

KING: Well that's the way I think it's listed on the schedule of Alaska Airlines. That's supposed to be an MD-80. Of course, equipment does change sometimes.

COUGHLIN: Exactly, yes. But we're operating on the assumption that it's an MD-80. There are plenty of them in service, both domestically and internationally. The airline itself, as you've pointed out, has a good safety record. They might have had a level of comfort going into LAX because they have a big maintenance facility there and had the ability to get gate space there. But it's just so preliminary. Obviously, the NTSB, when they arrive on the scene, is going to want to understand the conversations with air traffic control and find out whether they had any difficulties that they registered on the ground or -- and what they might have experienced en route as they look to unfold...

KING: Carl, when...

COUGHLIN: ... exactly what happened.

KING: Thank you, Susan, Stay right with us.

Carl, when a pilot asks for any kind of emergency, is clearance immediate?

ROCHELLE: Yes, absolutely. When you declare an emergency, you take precedence. There's also, having taught a great deal of, what do you do? to students when you get in that situation, when you declare an emergency, you're very often asked if you have the time to respond what the nature of it is and what are your intentions. In other words, what do you want to do? Don't know if they explained to the air traffic controllers what the nature of their information was. If they did, that information isn't available to us yet.

Controls on that airplane are still -- they're hydraulically assisted on both those aircraft, but they're mechanical, they're not the newer fly-by-wire, which are electronic controls. And that could or could not be a factor in it. But it does give you a measure of redundancy. If you lose your hydraulic system, both of those planes can actually be flown by what we call the old "Armstrong Method," just grab and all.

KING: Manual.

ROCHELLE: Manual, exactly. It's tough, it's heavy. It's a heavy-duty airplane without the hydraulic assist on it, but...

KING: Would...

ROCHELLE: ... it can be flown.

KING: Carl, wouldn't it be logical -- and this is for you, too, Susan, for Carl -- Charles, everyone -- to assume that if a pilot signals distress, he tells the controller what the distress is, Carl?

ROCHELLE: No, not necessarily.


ROCHELLE: Sometimes -- sometimes, you just say, I've got an emergency onboard. It may be, I've got a problem with an engine. Sometimes you come straight out and do it. Maybe he doesn't even know what the nature of the emergency is. Maybe he's getting some loss of control. Maybe the controls are jammed up. There are redundancies in an aircraft when one control malfunctions or actually redundancy. It's -- without getting into a great deal of technical detail on it -- if the elevators tend to freeze up on you, you can use control tabs to -- trim tabs to get some forces in there. If your rudders jam up on you, you can use your aliorons (ph) and vice versa. So there's redundancy in the control system in all these aircraft, which does give a pilot some ways to get out. That's the second engine. You've got a second engine in there.

Contaminated fuel? That could be a problem. If both the engines went out at that point, that could be a major problem. And if that happened, then you're in a glide situation. When you've got two and both of them quit, then of course you have no options but to put it down where you are. But they would, even in that case, more than likely have had time to call the controllers and say we've lost engines...

KING: Yes, Charles...

ROCHELLE: ... so I'm not sure. There's a lot of speculation, but, you know, that's all it is, Larry, right now is speculation.

KING: Charles, do you gather that the NTSB and the like are talking to the controller?

FELDMAN: You mean now? I'm sure they're talking...

KING: Yes, now.

FELDMAN: I'm sure they're trying to talk to everybody possible that would have been involved in handling that aircraft. At the altitude it was at and the basic vicinity it was to Southern California, it was probably in contact with what they call Los Angeles Center, which handles high-altitude aircraft. As it would have descended, it would have either been handed over to Point Mugu approach or Los Angeles approach. My guess is it was probably Los Angeles Center, and there were probably talking to them.

I was told just a second ago in my ear, Larry, that we've now confirmed that it was, in fact, an MD-80 aircraft, as opposed to...


FELDMAN: ... the Boeing 737 that we were talking about before. And for those who might not be familiar with that aircraft, the MD-80 is a sort of modern-day derivative of what they used to call the McDonnell Douglas DC-9, which is a two-engine aircraft with the two engines on the tail of the plane.

In later incarnations, it was dubbed the MD-80. There's a sister aircraft called the MD-90. Both originally designed and built by the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, but as you probably know, in recent years McDonnell Douglas was bought by Boeing...

KING: Right. And the...

FELDMAN: ... so the MD-80 now falls under the Boeing corporate logo.

KING: And the 80 and 90 stand for the years the came out. The MD-80 came in 1980, the MD-90 in 1990.

FELDMAN: Yes, and both have...

KING: I believe that's correct.

FELDMAN: I'm not sure about that, but they both are considered very safe aircraft with very good safety records. They're sort of workhorses of the airline industry. You see them flying all over the world, mostly on short to medium hops.

KING: Let's bring in Mary Schiavo, the former official at the Department Of Transportation and frequently a critic of the airline industry.

Mary, this is very presumptuous, of course, and early on. Do you have any early read on this?

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION OFFICIAL: Well, doing what the NTSB does, you look at similar situations. It's hard to tell, but they were able to the get off a distress so that the report -- some reports were able to say that they had a mechanical that. That indicates at least they had some time. It wouldn't suggest any kind of a total loss of control. Other accidents have involved everything from a loss of hydraulics, some loss of a control surface.

They didn't mention it, but there have been some, such as SwissAir 111, where there was a fire that originally they thought they could land but then quickly gone out of control. So there have been many accidents like this that were able to get off a mayday or at least indicate that they had a problem and then just ran short of time.

KING: You continue with your concerns about aviation, do you not?

SCHIAVO: I have great concerns about lots of aviation. In this case, Alaska Airlines did have a fairly good accident incident rate. A couple of years ago, they had a very interesting enforcement accident, a fine by the FAA for improperly modifying a plane, making unapproved changes to one of their aircraft. But other than strange things like that, they have had a pretty good record.

KING: Greg LeFevre is with us, and he is at San Francisco International Airport.

Where in the airport are you, Greg?

GREG LEFEVRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Larry, I'm in the international terminal, right above the area where some of these passengers might have disembarked had this plane made it all the way to San Francisco. Flight number 261 has long since been taken off the arrival monitors here. The mood at the arrival terminal here, the international terminal, is calmer. Normally there is a lot of cheering and screaming and happy news as folks step off these plane, but the mood downstairs at the arrival area is quite somber.

We've just heard from the San Francisco Airport spokesman, Ron Wilson, who was just saying that the airport has already put grief counselors on duty here. Just a few moments ago, I saw a member of the clergy being escorted into a room. We understand that four people have come to this area to -- to be counseled by the clergy here. We can only presume that these folks had intended to meet passengers from Flight 261 when it arrived here in San Francisco -- Larry.

KING: Have you seen any other awaiting people, people who might have been waiting for that flight, you, yourself?

LEFEVRE: We have not, Larry. This flight was due to land here almost two hours ago. And when -- by the time news had arrived of the crash, that was about the time this plane was actually destined here.

The airport has made several announcements during the afternoon asking people who were due to meet Alaska 261 to report to a certain area at Alaska Airlines offices here, and it is presumed those folks did get the message and moved on from there.

There's one small mystery, and that is we don't know, the airport at present, doesn't know how many passengers were destined to get off here in San Francisco. As you know, this plane was actually scheduled to go on to Seattle -- Larry.

KING: Oh, I did not know that.

LEFEVRE: The plane...

KING: So this was Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco to Seattle?

LEFEVRE: Yes, the flight, 261, originates in Puerto Vallarta, lands in San Francisco. This was to be its first stop, and then it was to proceed on to Seattle, which is the city, the headquarters city for Alaska Airlines -- Larry.

KING: So I'm sure we'll be checking with that airport to see if passengers were expecting people to come. Were anybody -- was anybody in the San Francisco airport who was scheduled to board to it go to Seattle?

LEFEVRE: We do not know. This is a regular run. It is almost a commuter run for a lot of folks. Alaska is a very busy airline up and down the West Coast, and the Seattle to San Francisco run is very popular one. That flight would have likely boarded in a different part of the airport.

This plane was due to land here at the international terminal, and it is our belief that, at the moment, that passengers who were actually going to Seattle might have boarded at a domestic terminal, which is about 300 yards from this one. So we at the moment do not believe that people were destined to step on this plane here in San Francisco. KING: Mary Schiavo, have we had any problems at that airport, the Puerto Vallarta airport, in regards to maintenance and the like...

SCHIAVO: Well, I can't tell you that...

LEFEVRE: We don't have information on Puerto Vallarta. We do know that the people who were going to be boarding here in San Francisco...

KING: I asked that -- hold on, hold on. I got two people talking at once. Hold on, Greg, I asked that of Mary Schiavo -- Mary.

SCHIAVO: Well, we've had problems generally in some Mexican facilities and some offshore facilities. But specifically Puerto Vallarta, I cannot say that. We've had just all sorts of problems, everything from bogus parts to just plain, you know, maintenance that in some cases isn't up to what we consider good standards here. But specifically with that one, no, can't say that.

KING: All right, for late viewers, viewers just tuning in, we're going to have Charles Feldman get us up to date.

And we do know additional things now, Charles. We do know definitely it was an MD-80, and we do know that flight was going to go on from San Francisco to Seattle. So for viewers who have just tuned in, Charles Feldman is at the L.A. bureau, Carl Rochelle's with us, Mary Schiavo, Susan Coughlin, and we have Greg LeFevre at San Francisco airport.

Carl, you want to -- Charles. rather, bring us right up to date?

FELDMAN: Well, Larry, as you've said, we've now confirmed that it was an MD-80-type aircraft, originally designed by McDonnell Douglas, which is now owned by the Boeing aircraft company. It was an Alaska Flight 261 from Mexico on to San Francisco, and then after a stopover in San Francisco it was bound for Seattle. And, as my colleague, Greg LeFevre pointed out, it is a very popular route and Alaska Airlines a very popular airline up and down the West Coast.

Some 70 passengers and crew, we understand, were aboard the flight. At about 3:45 this afternoon, that's Pacific time, a distress call of some sort went out, we understand, from the pilot of the aircraft indicating some sort of as yet unspecified mechanical problem and requesting that the aircraft be diverted to nearby Los Angeles International Airport.

But at around 17,000 feet, we understand air traffic control lost the aircraft from its radar screens, and the airplane crashed some 27 miles northwest of LAX off an area of the California coast known as Point Mugu, which, for those who are military-minded, might recall that that's where the Mugu Naval Air Force Base or Naval Airbase is located.

In terms of what the nature of the distress call was or what the nature of the mechanical problem was, we do know at this time. We do not know why the pilot was not able to make the landing at Los Angeles International. It takes a while for these large aircraft to be able to land. They just can't, you know, swoop down from cruising altitude and set down safely on a runway.

So there are many, many questions, as is the case with most aircraft accidents, which tend to be complex and tend to have very confusing facts, at least at first. There are many, many more questions that need to be asked and answers at the moment are very few. But I'm sure that as the hours and days progress, we'll learn a lot more.

KING: Carl Rochelle, one would -- would it be safe to say that water is 100 times more troublesome that had it occurred on land?

ROCHELLE: Certainly in terms of recovering the aircraft, recovering the black boxes, recovering survivors, recovering victims, yes. Sometimes you can make a landing on water safely if you were in a mountainous area, but, no, generally speaking, water is much more difficult to deal with, And particularly you have to deal with the depths and trying to recover victims of it. And, of course, on land, if anyone does survive, of course they're not immediately in danger of drowning...

KING: Yes.

ROCHELLE: ... which is also a problem when you have to put an airplane down on the water. So, yes, yes, water does make it a lot more difficult.

KING: Now how about night? Now night has fallen on Southern California. Doesn't that add to the double difficulty, Carl?

ROCHELLE: Yes, yes. Night time makes it even more difficult. You have the military involved, you have the Coast Guard involved. They are extremely capable, extremely competent in what they are trying to do. They have night-vision equipment, they are trained in rescue and recovery.

And, of course, always, in any of these cases the first thing the rescuers do is look for survivors. That is the first priority, to try find survivors. Then they go about trying to recover information about the airplane. So what you see going on right now is what's defined as a rescue operation. And at some point, it will move into a recovery operation. But that only goes after they have decided that there is no more chance of any survivors in the area.

Water temperature can be a factor, too, if we're talking about water. If it's very chilly, you certainly have the possibility of hypothermia if you have to stay in the water for a long period of time, reducing your survivability of all of that.

But my understanding is that the Navy is bringing assets into the area to help with the recovery operations. Don't have the absolute details on that now, but that is one of the things that is under way and of course the Coast Guard out looking now, looking for survivors and trying to do what they can. Early on in a crash, it's always tough early on to figure out what happened, what went wrong and what they're trying to do about it, Larry.

Mary Schiavo, the black box: Is it always the most informative aspect?

SHIAVO: Well, in a situation like this it will be. Obviously, the cockpit voice recording is probably going to be very important as well. We don't have many clues yet from the tower, so both the data recorder and the voice recorder will be invaluable. Hopefully, they'll be fairly new ones. This was a recent plane. It certainly won't be like TWA 800 with such sketchy information. And since they did say -- indicate they had mechanical problems, chances are it will be picked up on the data recorder.

KING: Thank you, Mary. We understand Lieutenant Kevin Reed of the U.S. Coast Guard is with us.

Are you there, Kevin?

LT. KEVIN REED, U.S. COAST GUARD: Yes, sir, I am here.

KING: What can you tell us about what is currently labeled rescue operation?

REED: Well, right now we currently have several Coast Guard resources on scene. They're conducting just searches of the area for any possible survivors.

At this time, there have been some bodies recovered, but there have been no survivors at this time.

KING: Can you tell us how many bodies?

REED: Right now, I don't have the exact count. Somebody is looking for that information for me right now.

KING: Would you be surprised if there were any survivors, Lieutenant?

REED: Truthfully, I can't speculate on that. Just right now we're just hopeful.

KING: How long do you keep this up? Will you be there all night?

REED: We will be ramped up for the night, all night.

KING: That means what, "ramped up"?

REED: Well, we will be here operating all night conducting our operations, searching and, you know, just conducting our operations during this event.

KING: How many craft are involved? REED: Say again?

KING: How many of your craft are in the water?

REED: Well, right now we had two 60 hilos (ph) en route or on scene. We have several cutters. I can't -- like I said, right now I can -- I'm having somebody track down the exact numbers, but we have several cutters en route. We have the various utility boats, small boats, out there, as I said, searching around. And there's also been commercial fishermen -- commercial vessels calling, offering their assistance.

KING: Is this tough to train for, Lieutenant?

REED: Say again.

KING: Is this tough to train for?

REED: Well, as a Coast Guard, we train every day for search-and- rescue operations. At our units, it's ongoing. I mean, we're constantly training. And, as you see, now we're in action.

KING: Yes, obviously. Thank you, Lieutenant.

Charles, how far down do they go?

FELDMAN: How far down does what go? The...

KING: Do divers go? When do they start using -- doing that?

FELDMAN: Well, I mean, you know, it depends on the equipment that they have, it depends on water currents. I mean, for example, the last report I saw showed that there were at the surface 15 to 20 knot winds, which is not very strong but certainly enough to cause some waves and to cause some problems. A lot's going to depend on the equipment that's available here in California.

You might remember that with the EgyptAir aircraft they had to bring some special equipment to the site in order to allow the divers the luxury of going down lower.

Let me just mention something. You recall I said that when you have these kinds of accidents you always have a lot of clarification and facts that are rapidly changing. There is one report now that says that the aircraft type might have been an MD-83. And I'm looking at my list of what they call the MD-80 series of aircrafts, and if in fact it was an MD-83, what that is is a long-range version, or a longer-range version, if you will, of the MD-80 that we were talking about. It would have more powerful engines, some extra fuel capacity and probably a little larger seating capacity if it was the MD-83. But these things, as I said, sometimes take quite some time to sort out.

KING: I never heard that, MD-83.

FELDMAN: Yes, there's a whole bunch. There's an MD-83, there's an MD-87. It's a whole series of aircraft beginning with MD-80. And mostly these are just variations on a theme. They're basically the same airframe. They have the same certification process by the FAA, but they have different power plants, they have different ranges. And if it's an MD-83, it would be an extended range version of the MD-80.

KING: And another update, Carl, is we now have bodies.

Carl Rochelle, we now have the report from Lieutenant Reed that bodies have been recovered from the water.

ROCHELLE: Bodies have been recovered.

KING: Should Alaska Airlines be talking to us now?

ROCHELLE: Alaska Airlines is probably not going to talk to you, and one of the reasons may be that the National Transportation Safety Board takes very strongly its request that the airlines not talk a great deal to the media when an accident like this happens beyond giving the basic facts and the basic information that they have.

In fact of the matter, I just came back from covering a hearing on a crash in Little Rock, American Airlines crash last June, that they head of American Airlines immediately began talking, and the NTSB didn't like it and asked them not to do it anymore. And they sort of reached an agreement that they wouldn't do that anymore. So you may hear a little bit from Alaska Airlines, but not a lot.

You know, one of the problems, Larry -- and it's a wonderful problem -- is that most of the airlines are not familiar with dealing with an accident, and that's because they don't have very many.

KING: Yeah.

ROCHELLE: And that's a good thing. So they don't have this operation in place to deal with an emergency like this. And all of a sudden, Alaska Airlines, which to my knowledge has not had a major accident, is now in the situation of having to try to figure out exactly how to handle this.

I will tell you that the National Transportation Safety Board is putting together a "go team," which consists of all of its investigators, including a board member and a lead investigator, and they will be heading out to the area to look into the crash. Don't know whether they'll leave tonight or tomorrow.

All of the records, all of the information about this, all the radar tapes -- and the radar control centers all record tapes of what the scopes are showing -- all of that will be secured by the National Transportation Safety Board. They'll be part of the investigation. The FAA will be actively involved in this, also.

Now, the interesting thing is the Coast Guard is telling us that bodies have been found, but I wonder, have we found any survivors, any indication of any survivors anywhere or an estimation from the Coast Guard that there may be survivors?

KING: He said he had no information on that.

Mike McCarron is the spokesman with San Francisco International Airport.

Can you hear me, Mike?


KING: What's the situation at the -- which was the first destination point of this plane?

MCCARRON: That's correct. We've activated our operations center here at the airport. We have the family and friends who were going to greet the passengers as they arrived sequestered off to an area. We have clergy on recall, as well as mental health counselors coming in as a crisis team to help them with this situation. And we're standing by to offer any other support that Alaska Airlines may require of us.

KING: Do you train for stuff like this, Mike?

MCCARRON: Regularly. We have an emergency operations plan which we do every year. We do a drill, so we go through this every year as a test. Usually, it's just a test, however.

KING: Mike, were any people arriving at the airport to board that plane to go to Seattle?

MCCARRON: I don't have any knowledge of that right now. I would imagine so, but I don't have any confirmation on that at this time.

KING: What's -- does -- a word like this spreads through the entire airport. What -- what's -- if it's possible, what's the mood there?

MCCARRON: As I came through the lobby about two hours ago, it was pretty normal. It was a quiet night anyway. It's kind of a lull in our travel period right now. But I didn't notice anything unusual about the mood of the airport.

KING: Do you know, there were early reports that the pilot had contact at San Francisco tower. Do you know that to be true?

MCCARRON: Well, that would be very difficult to contact San Francisco tower from his location. He'd probably talk to Los Angeles center, who was controlling them in their air space at that time. He was -- where he crashed is about 300 miles from San Francisco, and there's no way he could have been in radio contact with San Francisco tower.

KING: All right. Do you work with Alaska Airlines on this?

MCCARRON: We provide them any support that Alaska needs. We're offering private rooms and any other support that the station manager requests of us at this time.

KING: Do other Alaska operations continue, landings and take- offs?

MCCARRON: As of now, they do, yes.

KING: Did the National Transportation Safety Board take command of this?

MCCARRON: Once they arrive on the scene of the crash site, they have command of the situation. They'll be the on-scene commander. Right now, the Coast Guard is conducting the search in the area off Point Mugu, the Naval air station out there, and they're -- they're involved in the rescue and recovery, but the investigation will be NTSB's.

KING: Thank you, Mike.

Mary Schiavo, you still with us?


KING: All right, what does NTSB -- what's the first thing they do when they arrive? They go to various places, right? They'll go out to the scene. They'll go to LAX. They'll go to San Francisco. What -- what do they do?

SCHIAVO: Well, they're kind of like a civil FBI, and in some cases the FBI works with them. But literally, they're going to take command of the situation. They're -- first it's a search and rescue. The Coast Guard has responsibility for that.

But the NTSB will be literally gathering all the -- helping gather all the wreckage. They'll be gathering all the tapes from the FAA. They'll be getting all of the recordings, anything physical they can get. Already, they have teams pulling records from that airline, checking. They probably already have people trying to gather information from Puerto Vallarta.

Literally anything or anybody that touched that plane is now going to be under review by the NTSB, but the first priority is obviously the site. They want to make sure everything is basically under their control. They want to make sure that nothing contaminates the evidence. That's their first priority, but literally, they're covering all bases.

KING: And Mary, does the FBI get involved, or is that down the road?

SCHIAVO: Well, only if there's indication of criminality . Since the pilot was able to get off an indication that there was an emergency and that there was a mechanical, doesn't look like a case for the FBI unless, of course, there was foul play. If there is foul play, ten of course, the NTSB has to take a literally secondary role while criminal evidence is sifted through. But at this point, since he did indicate a mechanical problem, does not indicate foul play.

KING: All right, Alaska Airlines has now issued an 800 number that people can call for information about this flight and passengers. And there you see it. If you want information on Alaska Airlines Flight 261, family information number -- please, family only, don't bombard this line just on speculation -- 1-800-553-5117.

We're going to ask Charles Feldman now in Los Angeles for those people -- you know, people tune in and out of television all the time -- those who may just be clicking in, we're getting more information by, it seems, every five minutes. If Charles Feldman would now bring us up to date, right what we know now -- Charles.

FELDMAN: Larry, what we know now is this, and to recap what we've been saying and maybe a little bit more information -- an Alaska Airlines jetliner with about 65 passengers and 5 crew members crashed about 27 miles northwest of the Los Angeles International Airport late this afternoon California time. It was on a flight from Mexico to San Francisco and then onward to Seattle -- at about 3:45 this afternoon.

And as I mentioned, the pilot indicated that there was some sort of a mechanical problem. He was in contact with air traffic control at the time and requested an emergency divergence to the Los Angeles International Airport. But the aircraft, of course, never made it and instead went down in the waters off the California coast and off of Point Mugu, which is home to the Point Mugu Naval air station.

The type of aircraft is an MD-80, although at least one report says that it's an MD-83, which would be a longer-range version of this twin-engine aircraft. It's what they call a "narrow-bodied" airplane, not a big jumbo jet, but it can carry as many as 155 passengers, we're told, although, as I mentioned, apparently 65 passengers on board and five crew members.

What the nature of the mechanical problem was, if it was a mechanical problem -- and that may have been the pilot's conjecture at the time, but keep in mind that things obviously were happening fast and furious in that cockpit, and even the pilot's guess may have not been correct. But if it was a mechanical problem, what it is we don't know at the time. All we do know, of course, is that that aircraft disappeared from radar screens at about 17,000 feet, so he appeared to have been on his way down to LAX.

The area that he landed in, by the way, that the -- that it crashed in, is an area that is one of the approach routes into Los Angeles International Airport for aircraft coming in usually from the north. But there may have been a reason why that aircraft overshot LAX, because if you sort of keep in mind the geography, the plane was moving from the south, Mexico, to the north, but it bypassed Los Angeles International Airport because the area it crashed at is northwest of it. But that might be because that is the route in which aircraft would -- one of the routes in which an aircraft might be vectored into an emergency landing at Los Angeles Airport. But of course, it didn't make it.

The "N" number, by the way, which is the number that you see across the tail, is N63AS -- A-S -- and that is an aircraft that was registered back in 1992. And as I think we've said all along, Alaska Airlines has a very good safety record, as does this particular series of McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing-owned aircraft. Whether or not this particular aircraft had a maintenance problem, that we don't know yet. Those are the kinds of questions that the airline is obviously looking through its records. Boeing would be looking through its, and of course, the NTSB "go team" would be looking at that, as well.

KING: Charles Feldman getting us right up to date.

We now have with us Brendan Murphy, retired Navy master diver. There you see -- Brendan Murphy, the retired Navy master diver is on the phone with us. And you dove in the TWA 800 thing, right, Brendan?

BRENDAN MURPHY, FORMER U.S. NAVY SALVAGE DIVER: Yes, I did. My main job there -- was one of three or four Navy master divers who were in charge of the dive teams on the Navy salvage ships, and also the smaller craft vessels that used scuba divers to help in the recovery.

KING: What, Brendan, is a "master diver"?

MURPHY: That's the senior supervisory position that you can obtain as an enlisted person in the Navy. Your basic job is to plan salvage operations, and then you're responsible to the on-scene commander or the commanding officer for the safe administration of those operations.

KING: With what we know now, when do divers come into play here?

MURPHY: Well, first of all, the Navy will -- the National Transportation Safety Board has the con on this, and somewhere along the line, they'll request the Navy's -- for the Navy's assistance. As has been mentioned already a number of times, this is currently a rescue effort, and then to be followed by a recovery effort. And the Navy will take -- NTSB will take the lead in that and request the services of the Navy for either the -- assist in the rescue or, subsequent to that, the recovery.

KING: What, Brendan, is the number-one problem in an operation like this?

MURPHY: Well, you have a number of things. Right off the bat here is the availability of the right assets. And what I mean by that is the ships. Everybody's seen the pictures of the USS Grasp and Grapple from EgyptAir, TWA and, of course, SwissAir Flight 111. Those two crafts on the East Coast were in Little Creek and fairly close to those areas. The sister ships, the USS Safeguard and USS Salvor (ph) are the only two other type salvage ships the Navy has, and they're located in Hawaii. So for a large, heavy salvage, of course, those ships would have to get there. So you want to get your assets in place.

The next thing is, of course -- and I'm not familiar with this area, but what is the depth of the water? The depth of the water will determine what you use, what equipment you use. For example, TWA 800 was in approximately 120 feet of water. In that job there, we were able to efficiently use literally hundreds of divers to help in the recovery because the depth was -- wasn't too deep.

Then we went on to SwissAir 111. The depth there was 190 feet. It made it a little bit more difficult and required the use of different type equipment, mixed-gas diving systems. And then, of course, everyone's familiar with the EgyptAir, 250-plus feet, where the depth was almost at the limits of -- of surface-supplied diving capabilities, which is 300 feet. And we had to use the remotely- operated vehicles as the mainstay for that recovery -- those...

KING: Brendan, maybe we can help a little.

Charles Feldman, do you know the depth of that water?

FELDMAN: No, I'm afraid I don't, and it would also depend to some degree -- around that whole area on the coast, you have different -- you have some reefs and things like that, that might shallow the depth of the water. It'll all depend on exactly where that aircraft hit and if, in fact, it hit intact.

KING: Brendan, temperature of the water a factor?

MURPHY: Oh, it certainly is when we're talking about recovery. I'm not an expert on rescue, so I won't comment on that. But when it comes to the recovery and the divers that you're using, there temperature is certainly a factor. You need to have specialized equipment, hot-water suits, so the divers can spend the maximum amount of time in the water.

Just to comment on the bottom type there. It was mentioned that there's reefs of some sort, and if it's an irregular, rocky bottom -- the first step in a recovery portion of this will be, of course, defining the debris field, and that requires you to use ships with towed side-scan sonars. And if you have a rocky, irregular bottom, it make defining the debris field more difficult.

KING: Does it make a difference night or day?

MURPHY: Well, when it comes to, of course, the rescue. When it comes to the recovery, not really. And the reason why is most of the Navy divers are trained and most of the work is done in very limited visibility. Also, the first stage or the first phase of the recovery being done using towed-arrayed systems, side-scan sonars -- that can be done around the clock. And of course, the diving can be done around the clock.

KING: You're retired now, Brendan. You miss this thing?

MURPHY: No. Bottom line, you know, you've done a couple of these things, you can be of assistance discussing, you know, and explaining and, hopefully, giving people a better picture of what is involved and what the -- what the salvors go through in a situation like this. But I'd just as soon not see another one of these.

KING: No, I mean you don't miss diving, then.

MURPHY: Oh. No, actually, that's what I do for a living now.

KING: Oh, you -- you -- I only meant diving. I didn't think missing a crash -- I mean, you still continue to dive. MURPHY: Yes. Yes. I'm a -- I work for a diving company, actually, a construction company in Massachusetts.

KING: Thanks, Brendan.

We understand joining us now by phone is Phil Condin, the chairman of the board of Boeing.

Are you there, Phil?


KING: Good talking with you again. Phil was a recent guest on this program.

Any official statement from your company? This is now your bailiwick, right?

CONDIN: Well, actually, first, you know that my sympathies, my deepest sympathies and those of the entire Boeing company to all the friends and family of the people onboard.

At this point, clearly, we are in a support mode. The NTSB will be the one guiding the investigation, and we will put all of our resources into helping them.

KING: You did not build the MD-80, right?

CONDIN: Well, it was built by McDonnell Douglas, which, of course, now the part of Boeing.

KING: So do you involved in checking these planes or -- because what you're building MD now would be MD-90s, right?

CONDIN: We're building MD-90s and what was called MD-95, now the 717. But we take, you know, the full responsibility for all of the records of all of those airplanes, so we will be involved.

KING: Is the company up tonight thinking about this, or is it too early to conjecture?

CONDIN: Well, we have a team that responds instantly whenever there's an incident anywhere in the world. So those people are clearly already engaged. But, you know, until we know a little bit more, there's nothing at all you can say. And, you know, as you and I talk, until you've got real data, any kind of speculation just doesn't make any sense.

KING: Would you say that, Phil, it's strange to have something happen at upper levels of altitude?

CONDIN: It is not often that that happens. You know, most accidents occur in and around airports when you're close to the ground. But beyond that, that's just -- that's the background data. Until we know exactly what the situation was here, we can't really know anymore. KING: Are the MDs now built at Boeing in Seattle?

CONDIN: No, they are built in the Long Beach facility. That's still now an active Boeing facility.

KING: And you build quite a bit of planes for Alaska Airlines, do you not?

CONDIN: Yes, we do. They are a very good, very important customer of ours.

KING: And a very good airline, are they not?

CONDIN: They're headquartered here in Seattle.

CONDIN: Phil, thank you very much in this early hours of this to share that information with us.

Carl Rochelle is in Washington with what we know now.

What can you add, Carl? We now know it was maybe an MD-83. There are people coming out -- they're bringing out bodies out of the water. It was going to go on to Seattle. What do we know now? What can you add to what we didn't know 48 minutes ago?

ROCHELLE: Well, Larry, everything is just firming up some of the things that we know or how as best we know them. And I've just talked to the FAA and they say that their indication is that the aircraft is an MD-80. It was Alaska Airlines Flight 261. It went down roughly 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport at 4:15 local time, 7:15 Eastern Standard Time.

The FAA says they know there are a number of different reports of persons onboard, but their indication is there are 55 passengers and a crew of five. That's 55 passengers and a crew of five. That would be 60 people.

They did confirm that there were reports from the aircraft that it was encountering some kind of difficulty when it asked to turn back into Los Angeles International Airport, and they say there are reports that the difficulties may have been of the nature of something to do with controls, but they don't know that. There are just some reports out there that they're checking out to find out more of what they can about that.

But it's just a firming of up of information about the actual flight number confirmed by the FAA, Alaska Airways Flight 261, an MD- 80 with 60 total people onboard. And the place where they believe that it's down is 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport. Again, down at 4:15 local time and 7:15 Eastern Standard Time.

In every case like this, the information is sketchy. It's coming in, and they're trying to determine all of the solid information that they can. They will go back and look at all the radar tracks and find out what they can about it going down. Something about the salvage ships, Larry. We became very familiar with the Grasp and the Grapple, the two East Coast-based Navy survival ships...

KING: Yes.

ROCHELLE: ... and we've seen them used a lot at Halifax, in the Kennedy crash, in the EgyptAir 990. Well, the Navy has a couple of similar ships out on the West Coast of the United States. and I am told that they are based in Pearl Harbor which would put them quite a ways away...

KING: That's what -- Brendan Murphy told us that. They were in Hawaii. Would they be heading there now?

ROCHELLE: Well, they have to be officially requested by the National Transportation Safety Board to participate...

KING: And we're going to get...

ROCHELLE: ... and they will, I mean, if the NTSB asks them to do that. But here again, it depends on what the situation is. One of the things that needs to be found out is how deep that water is out there, and...

KING: Yes, that's what Brendan said.

ROCHELLE: ... someone in the Coast Guard probably has a nav, a water nav chart that has those depths listed, and they might be able to have an indication, but that could be a big...

KING: We're going to get an answer on that right now, Carl, because Jim Hall, the chairman of the NTSB is with us.

First, let me repeat the 800 number for relatives, friends, et cetera for Flight 261. Alaska Airlines asks you to call that number for information: 1-800-553-5117.

Jim Hall is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Kind of hate to have him as a guest, because every time he is there is a problem. Thank god it is infrequent.

Where are you, Jim?

JIM HALL, CHAIRMAN, NTSB: Larry, I'm in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in my home.

KING: Will you head out to this or will just base it from there?

HALL: Well, we've been -- I've been on the telephone this evening with our Washington office, and we're assembling our go team. And member Don Hammerschmidt (ph) will be going on the -- leading the team along with Dick Rodriguez (ph), our investigator in charge. And we think we have a departure time of about 2:00 a.m. this morning Eastern time for our go team to leave.

KING: And what does that go-team do?

HALL: Well, we'll have a number of disciplines, Larry, in place. We'll have our aviation experts there and those that are most familiar with this McDonnell Douglas airplane that will be on the initial launch.

In addition, we will be sending members from our family assistance staff. Of course, all of our thoughts are with the families tonight. And we want to be sure that the specialists that we have to coordinate support for the family members are there on the scene just as soon as possible.

In addition, we will have an individual from the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, who will be there, that we can be coordinating and talking about the recovery effort that will have to take place in the Pacific Ocean.

So we're trying to gather as much details now, coordinating with the coast guard and with the United States Navy about the exact water that this plane has impacted in.

KING: And that will then determine whether you call for those ships to come from Hawaii?

HALL: Right. We're -- right now, the supervisor of salvage at our request is preparing a list of all the available assets and the amount of time it would take for them to get to the scene. And we'll certainly be coordinating with the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the many agencies that have already responded out in California in trying to be sure that the response of the government is coordinated and is effective as it can possibly be for this tragedy.

KING: Jim, are there any assumptions you make this early, or is that a mistake?

HALL: No. Right now, we're just trying to gather information, Larry, and get as many people that we need to have in place there. We have offices in Los Angeles, and Preston Hicks (ph), who's the head of our Los Angeles office as well as our office in Seattle and Anchorage all have been alerted to provide support. And we will have -- we've contacted the Mexican government about having some of our investigators out of our Dallas-Fort Worth office immediately launched to Mexico.

KING: You've had a pretty good record with the MD-80, haven't you?

HALL: Well, all of the aircraft -- the major aircraft manufacturers make a good product and have good safety records. But you know, when these events occur, it's extremely important for the families and the public that we find out just as quickly as we can what occurred.

And so, that will be our effort: to try and identify what happened, and if necessary, obviously, take immediate action, corrective action.

KING: And you're saying, again, that the NTSB team will be heading out about 2:00 a.m. Eastern Time. That's about, I guess, a 4 1/2, five-hour flight.

HALL: Yes, I just got off the telephone...

KING: So they'll be there about 4:00 in the morning.

HALL: ... with John Hammerschmidt. He's up in Washington. We've got about 12 people assembled. And we'll also have on that plane some representatives, as we always do, Larry, from the Federal Aviation Administration.

And I think we've tried to identify a hotel in Oxnard, California, which I understand is real near the point which is the closest proximity to this site. And so we will be trying to put together a headquarters and a support operation out there later this evening.

KING: Do you know name of the hotel, Jim?

HALL: I do not, Larry, at this point. I do not, but I do know we've tried to identify Oxnard, and we've gotten good support from the local folks out there in trying to help us assemble some hotel rooms.

KING: Thanks, Jim, as always. We'll be calling on you again. Jim Hall, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

We'll be wrapping up our portion of this coverage and then turning it over to the rest of the folks in Los Angeles under the auspices of Jim Moret, who will anchor it from here on.

The phone number again for Alaska Airlines, for information, family, friends -- the information number is 1-800-553-5117. Please call that number only if necessary. 1-800-553-5117.

We have about two minutes left. We'll spend a minute each with Mr. Feldman and Mr. Rochelle, who have been with us from the start.

Carl, this is just the beginning of things. I would imagine this story goes on, right?

ROCHELLE: It is. And what you will find, Larry, is that some of the details that have been a little fuzzy will become clearer. There may possibly be some changes.

For instance, this particular style of aircraft, we're hearing everything from an MD-80 to an MD-83. It's essentially the same aircraft, no matter whether it's an 82 or an 83. And the terms are interchangeable.

It -- 55 passengers onboard, a crew of five. That could change, but that's what we believe now.

But you find the Safety Board moving in, John Hammerschmidt, as you heard from Chairman Hall, coming in.

And of course, the second priority -- first priority is any survivors they can find. Second priority is finding those black boxes, because they are very important. They will give them information on what was happening on that airplane in those final moments.

KING: And Charles, Jim Hill told us that they're going to set up a base hotel in Oxnard. Can you give us a hit -- not a hit -- tell us where Oxnard is in relation to this?

FELDMAN: Well, it's very close. It has a small airport for private aircraft, small aircraft to land at. And it has a number of hotel and motel facilities.

By the way, let me add that I'm told -- I was told a moment ago that apparently the Associated Press is reporting that the nature of the mechanical problem that at least was declared might have had something to do with the stabilizer trim. If that's the case, that is -- the trim is one of the things that you can use on the aircraft to keep it either steady horizontally or vertically once the aircraft is positioned either to climb or descend. And it's something that helps relieve some of the pressure that would otherwise be required of the flight crew to keep that aircraft stable.

But that apparently according to the AP.

KING: We only have a minute left. If it were that, that could happen at high altitude, Charles?

FELDMAN: Well, I mean, any of these things can happen at any altitude. Any kind of mechanical or electrical failure can happen anywhere.

KING: All right, Charles Feldman, I thank you very much for -- and Charles, of course, will be staying on duty in Los Angeles. Carl Rochelle is based in Washington. Both, by the way, are licensed pilots. Rochelle is indeed a teacher as well.

And we've heard from lots of people, including the chairman of the NTSB, and Brendan Murphy, the retired Naval officer, the head of the Coast Guard, and the gentleman from San Francisco.

And our coverage continues with Jim Moret in Los Angeles. I'm Larry King. Of course, we will stay with this story around the clock on CNN, as we do with any major story that occurs. And certainly this is another tragedy in American aviation, which, thankfully, has not had many.

I'm Larry King in Los Angeles -- in New York. For our crews everywhere, thanks for joining us.

Stay tuned as Jim Moret continues the coverage.

Don't go away.



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