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   intermediate altitude for crossing traffic. Once they leveled off at 31,000 feet, the pulling force on the flight controls decreased to 30 pounds. Eventually, the crew sorted out that they could reduce the control forces if they increased airspeed. The aircraft subsequently accelerated from 280 KIAS to 301 KIAS, and the control force decreased to 10 pounds. The Stabilizer Inoperative checklist did not explic- itly direct the crew to land at the nearest suitable airport, and so the flight continued for the next two hours towards Southern California.
It is easy to sift decisions through the hindsight of tragic fatalities. It is obvious now that an immediate return to Puerto Vallarta would have greatly increased the chances of a safe landing. For every second that the crew failed to make a decision, Los Angeles beckoned (there are very few landing alternates between Puerto Vallarta and LA). Fly- ing in international airspace produces a complexity for an aircrew in a stressful situation. The California coast likely brought great comfort.
The cockpit voice recorder begins in the middle of a conver- sation between the captain of Flight 261 and Alaska Airlines maintenance controllers in Seattle. Within the first minute, a mechanic queries the captain, “Understand you’re request- ing diversion to there a specific reason you prefer LA over San Francisco?”
This was a question with in-between-the-lines impli- cations. Alaska Airlines 261 was originally scheduled from Puerto Vallarta to Seattle with a scheduled stop in San Francisco. The mechanic was advocating the captain to continue the flight to its intermediate destination. The captain would haltingly equivocate that he favored the weather in LA. He would later admit that he was concerned about the ability to safely land the aircraft: “I’m concerned about overflying suitable airports.”
The maintenance controller would not give up: “[Will the] added fuel that you’re gonna have in LA be a complication or an advantage?” This point actually had some merit. A lighter aircraft is generally preferable for an abnormal land- ing. Burning off fuel was already reducing the amount of control force that the crew was encountering (the crew had reselected the autopilot on as a result – even though this was contrary to guidance found in the Stabilizer Inoperative checklist). In truth, the destination was not going to have a direct bearing on the final outcome of the flight.
The f light’s dispatcher would immediately apply additional pressure: “If we land in LA, we’ll be looking at probably... an hour and a half [delay, ATC has] a major flow program San Francisco.” The captain would feebly respond: “ put me in a spot here.” Airline personnel at LAX would pile on: “Be advised we have to get landing rights...I have to clear it all through customs first.” The captain re- sponded more assertively: “Better start that ‘cause we are coming to you.”
A few minutes later, the captain requested an update on San Francisco weather, clearly succumbing to a bout of second-guessing. A station mechanic at LAX would contact the crew asking, “Did you try the suitcase handle and the
Runway Three Six
December 2020 / TWIN & TURBINE • 7

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