Alaska Airlines Flight 261
The tragic aircrash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, a Boeing (nee McDonnell-Douglas-83) aircraft, on 31 January 2000 has received considerable scrutiny from the news media, as reports of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the cause of the accident and other civil investigations unrelated to this aircrash and pertaining to maintenance practices at Alaska Airlines have proceeded. While it is important and even prudent not to jump to conclusions as to the persons or entities that may ultimately prove to be responsible for this unnecessary loss of life, it is equally important and judicious to keep asking the questions necessary to bring the ultimate cause and responsibility for this accident into focus.
The initial emphasis of the investigation and news media has been on the maintenance history, procedures and practices for the accident aircraft and Alaska Airlines. Indeed, an early and perhaps premature lawsuit filed within weeks of this aircrash premised liability on the airplane’s overflight of several airports while experiencing pitch trim or control difficulty.
Any liability of Alaska Airlines will likely be governed by the Warsaw Convention and its progeny, to include the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Agreements. Flight 261 was a flight engaged in international transportation. Jurisdiction under the Warsaw Convention is found primarily in the country where the tickets were purchased or the ultimate destination of the ticket. Round-trip tickets have the same destination as the first point of departure. For most, if not all of the passengers onboard, this will be the United States.
Liability of Alaska Airlines is absolute up to 100,000 Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), approximately $135,000 to $140,000 depending upon the exchange rate. The Airline will also be responsible for any damages proven greater than this amount, unless it is able to prove that it exercised "all necessary measures" to avoid and prevent the accident and fatal injuries to its passengers. The Warsaw Convention will also likely be found to be the exclusive basis for any airline liability and recovery of punitive damages against the airline is questionable since United States courts have previously disallowed punitive damages in Warsaw cases. The airline may, however, be able to "lay off" or spread around any responsibility that it may have to others deemed responsible in whole or part for the aircrash.
The Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA) may or may not come into play. The accident certainly would appear to be within a marine league (3 statute miles of Anacapa Island, California.)
But what about the manufacturer of the airplane? And what would cause the horizontal stabilator jack screw to strip the threads from the gimbal nut that it rotates within?
An experienced pilot and accident investigator has related a significant history of stabilator jamming incidents on another type of aircraft built by the same manufacturer. The pitch control system was much like that on the MD-83 which crashed. A lengthy investigation and numerous tests eventually determined that the stabilator bearings were freezing at higher altitudes due to a breakdown in the grease used to lubricate the bearings. Seized stabilator bearings immobilize the stabilator; and, electrical-mechanical attempts to move them strip the stabilator/gimbal plus strip the jack screw/gimbal-nut threads which form the actuating mechanism to move the stabilator on its bearings.
Neither the NTSB nor the media have addressed the stabilator bearings! Whether the bearings have been located, recovered and examined will only be learned or become clear as the investigation continues and becomes more thorough than just visual examination. Should lubrication of the stabilator bearings prove to be a cause, however, questions about the stabilator design, manufacture, lubrication, maintenance and inspection procedures, maintenance and publications by the manufacturer, service history and the prior known service difficulties with the stabilator must be asked and addressed.
Any liability of the overall or component manufacturer for the stabilizer assembly or the entire pitch control system would be based on ordinary negligence principles and strict liability for a defective product. Depending on the choice of law to be applied, i.e. California, Washington, Mexico or some other state, punitive damages may be an element of recovery. The burden of proof regarding these issues will, however, rest upon the families which have already needlessly sacrificed so much.