WASHINGTON — Investigators focused Thursday on the role that grease and maintenance may have played in a breakdown in the tail section of the Alaska Airlines passenger jet that plunged into the Pacific Ocean in January.
The tail jackscrew was found thread-worn and fractured when recovered by divers on Feb. 8. It helps control up-and-down movement in the Boeing MD-83 aircraft.
While investigators have concluded that the jackscrew stripped through a nut and broke, leaving the pilots unable to control the horizontal stabilizer, they said it will be months before they can determine why.
In the second day of a hearing to collect evidence and testimony this week, the National Transportation Safety Board heard from three witnesses about possible causes of the Jan. 31 crash, which killed all 88 people aboard.
Under scrutiny are the Seattle-based airline’s maintenance problems, which have been the subject of a criminal investigation, and whether the Boeing Co.-approved grease may have corroded the jackscrew’s threads.
Mike O’Neil, a Long Beach-based FAA aerospace engineer, testified the jackscrew was found with little grease on it, and said other considerations such as fatigue limits and maintenance history were not critical factors.
"The jackscrew assembly … had exhibited an acceptable service record," he said.
O’Neil dodged a question whether the horizontal stabilizer system that includes the jackscrew is safe for the Boeing MD-80 twinjets or their DC-9 predecessors. He said it "demonstrates compliance" with federal safety regulations.
Victims’ family members and attorneys who have filed suits on behalf of some of the family members are attending the hearing. The suits seek millions of dollars in damages.
"It’s like the reverse lottery," said real-estate agent Larry Nelson, 35, of Lynnwood, speaking of the death of his mother, Charlene Larsen Sipe, 54.
"I figured the chances are better of winning $6 million in the lottery than in dying in an airplane crash. My mom hated flying anyway. Maybe she had some kind of premonition years ago."
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