Aerial ambulance chasing

A lawsuit claims the Alaska Air pilots should have landed instead of trying to figure out what was wrong -- but the doomed men did the right thing.

Published February 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Last summer in Hyannis, I took a planeload of friends up for a sightseeing tour of Cape Cod. As we leveled out in cruise, they excitedly pointed at landmarks and took pictures. But my attention was on the controls, which told me that something was very wrong.

On that hot day, the plane wallowed in the sky, slow to climb and loath to turn. I had to pitch the nose up high to keep the plane level. The airspeed dropped drastically. I quickly sized up the level of my emergency -- the engine was running fine, I could easily turn and make it to the airport. What was making my sleek plane fly like a truck? I tuned out my chatty passengers and started assessing my problem.

On a much larger scale, thats pretty much what the two Alaska Air pilots did before crashing into the Pacific Ocean on Jan. 31. But a $75,000 lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of one passengers widow claims that the troubleshooting was "improper." Rather, the suit claims, the pilots should have "immediately  land(ed) the aircraft upon first notice of difficulty in operation."

The pilots' failure to land at airports in Los Angeles and San Diego has been questioned by others. But the second-guessing, and the widow's lawsuit, are wrong. The pilots did what they were supposed to: Analyze the situation, take corrective action, land as soon as practicable. Hurtling through the skies in a pressurized metal tube has its risks. Slapping the airline with a lawsuit wont make those risks magically disappear.

Dunning the pilots is simply a legal move. To dig into the deep pockets of Boeing and Alaska Airlines, the courts must first establish that the pilots didnt do everything possible to prevent a crash. Its a ridiculous idea -- who could imagine that both experienced pilots (over 18,000 flight hours between them) didnt want desperately to save their own lives? They spent the end of the flight doing what any pilot would do: troubleshooting.

I think about them, remembering my flight over Cape Cod that summer afternoon. I flew along the shoreline, my passengers watching the sea and sailboats while I gingerly wiggled the controls and adjusted the throttle. Then, something caught my eye -- the landing-gear circuit breaker had popped. Even though the panel lights indicated "up," the gear was probably still down. I turned back to Hyannis and made a low pass at the tower, the controllers visually confirming that the wheels were out.

If I had mindlessly bolted for the runway without first troubleshooting, I could have compounded a simple error with panic, piling up hurried mistakes in my rush to land. Or, my gear could have been only partially extended, waiting treacherously to collapse as I blithely -- safe at last! -- touched down on the asphalt.

Pilots are trained to spend a little time in the safe cushion of air, hovering over the hard dirt, learning how to handle the damaged machine before taking it down. Otherwise, who knows what rebellious trick the plane might try down there within inches of the runway? Armed with specific knowledge -- that the plane loses power only at a certain throttle setting, for example -- a pilot can avoid that setting when close to the ground.

My gear problem wasnt an emergency. Neither is a jammed elevator -- the problem that faced the Alaska pilots. The term "emergency" is reserved for problems that have no solution except to land immediately. Catastrophic problems such as losing a chunk of the cabin, a midair collision, engine failure or hijacking. A jammed elevator isnt an uncommon problem. Sometimes a circuit breaker needs to be pulled, or the controls need to be slammed around to break small bits of ice loose, then the flight continues normally.

Troubleshooting procedures are listed in fat "flight ops" books stored in the airplanes. Pilots facing trouble are supposed to open the book, flip to the pertinent section and run through the suggested solutions (pulling circuit breakers, switching to backup systems, turning switches off, then on again). If those dont fix it, then its time to consider declaring an emergency.

Admittedly, pilots dont like to declare emergencies. Theres all that annoying airline and FAA paperwork, the hassle of an investigation. Also the whiff of weakness, of faltering machismo. "Whats the matter, a little engine cough scare you?" Your buddies will joke on the ground, scaring away their own fears by jabbing at yours, "My captain landed us covered in ice last winter, you guys were afraid of a little wind shear?"

That attitude is fading, not slowly enough, as pilots toss out expressions like "A good landing is any one you walk away from," or "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots." The message is supposed to be: Better safe than sorry. Be careful up there.

Some news reports suggest that the Alaska Air pilots may have been too careful up there. Maybe they caused the mechanical failure themselves, stripping the nut from the jack screw or overheating the servomotors as they worked the horizontal stabilizer up, down, up, down -- is it smoother now? Cant tell if its getting worse or better -- up, down, up.

The Alaska Air pilots spent a mere 11 minutes troubleshooting on the way to the airport. The time probably raced by. At 4:10, when they were certainly past the Mexican border, the pilots first reported a "problem." At 31,000 feet, the plane clearly couldnt land until it bled off some altitude. Not easy to do in the MD80, according to pilots whove flown it.

"You pull the power back and its easy to overspeed on the descent," says a first officer for a major airline. "And with control problems, you dont want to start throwing out flaps and slats and everything to slow down. You dont know whats going to happen."

With that much altitude, which translates into distance, it makes sense that the pilots would point the nose straight ahead to LAX. The airport has the services an airliner in trouble would need -- a very long runway, experienced controllers, airport ambulances and fire trucks, nearby hospitals, foam for the runway, maintenance, connections to get passengers easily to San Francisco.

San Diegos Lindberg Field would be the next-best runway for a commercial jet. But by 4:10 p.m., Flight 261 may have already flown past it (the NTSB will not confirm the aircrafts position). Making a 180-degree turn in an emergency is never the first choice -- the pilots attention would be torn between making the turn and troubleshooting. Even if San Diego were dead ahead, it would have been early enough in the troubleshooting process for the pilots to believe LAX, with better facilities, was still within reach.

And reach it they did. By 4:16 the aircraft had descended to 25,000 feet, cleared for landing at LAX. The pilot asked to descend to 10,000 feet to try extending flaps to prepare for landing. He specifically asked to do it over water. There, his 42-ton missile wasnt aimed at a populated area.

The pilots surely struggled to lower the nose while the horizontal stabilizer fought back. In a jet, 10 miles from the airport is a blip, a breath. The runway would have been well within sight as the pilots glided by, testing the controls and planning a turn toward the field. Then, a control piece fell off, and suddenly the airplane was just a rock blasting past the runway. At 4:21 the plane dropped off radar at 1,600 feet.

I believe that the accident probably would have happened even if the plane turned toward San Diego or one of the smaller fields along the coast. What pushed the plane over the edge was probably the setup-for-landing procedure and not the time in the air. The pilots were heroes, keeping their crippled plane over the ocean instead of slamming it into suburban Los Angeles. But sometimes, even heroes draw the short stick.

By Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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