OT Aviation Update: Alaska Air and Payne Stewart

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Seattle: FBI talking to Alaska Airline workers here

Query related to crash, interviewed mechanic says

Wednesday, April 12, 2000



FBI agents investigating Alaska Airlines maintenance practices in Oakland, Calif., have expanded the investigation to include work at the airline's Seattle base.

A San Francisco-based FBI agent yesterday interviewed Seattle-area Alaska mechanics. The agent has been a lead investigator for a Bay Area grand jury concerned with alleged falsification of maintenance records at Alaska's Oakland facility. The investigation was recently expanded to include circumstances surrounding the Jan. 31 crash of Alaska Flight 261.

The shift to Seattle means the FBI suspects crimes may have been committed here as well as in Oakland, federal criminal justice sources said.

FBI agents raided Alaska facilities, seizing records in both Oakland and SeaTac in December, 1998. Since then, the investigation and questioning of mechanics has occurred almost exclusively in California. Alaska Airlines spokesman Greg Witter yesterday said he did not know about the FBI's presence in Seattle.

"We're cooperating fully with every federal agency and official, involving everything and anything having to do with the Flight 261 tragedy or the 1 1/2-year-old investigation of our Oakland (maintenance) facility," Witter said.

One mechanic who works in Alaska's maintenance hangar in Sea-Tac Airport said he was interviewed at length yesterday by an FBI agent.

"Everything we talked about was relevant to the crash," said the mechanic, who recounted the interview on the condition he would remain anonymous.

The mechanic, who has no first-hand knowledge of work on the MD-80 that crashed off the California coast, killing all 88 people on board, said he talked for more than two hours about a range of topics, including what he calls "the deterioration of maintenance" practices at Alaska. The company has lost experienced mechanics, and those remaining must battle pressure to cut corners on repairs, he said.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a so-called "white glove" inspection of Alaska Airlines, which began last week at in Seattle and Oakland. The 15-person team is looking at maintenance, paperwork procedures and other practices.

Problems at Alaska's Seattle maintenance hangar surfaced last month, when 64 mechanics claimed that their manager had forced them to cut corners on repairs. The mechanics, in a letter to company headquarters, alleged they had been told to put unserviceable parts back on planes. Ordering such action or doing so could constitute criminal violation of aviation regulations.

The company placed the manager, who denies any wrongdoing, on paid leave while they investigate. Airline officials also said they interviewed all 64 mechanics and none could cite a case where an unsafe plane was put into service.

The FAA has investigated allegations of improper maintenance practices in Oakland and has proposed a $44,000 fine against Alaska. It wants to revoke the mechanic's licenses of three maintenance supervisors.

The Oakland facility does much of the maintenance work on Alaska's fleet, including the last "heavy check" of the aircraft that crashed. That September 1997 check was to have included an inspection of the jackscrew, a device that moves a critical surface controlling pitch.

The jackscrew assembly has become a focus of the crash investigation. It was excessively worn and lacked grease in critical areas, the National Transportation Safety Board said.



Wednesday April 12 11:14 AM ET

FBI Seizes Records in Payne Stewart Crash Probe

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Federal agents investigating the jet crash that killed golf champion Payne Stewart seized several boxes of records from the charter company that operated the flight, the FBI said on Wednesday.

The FBI said the nine-hour search of SunJet Aviation Inc.'s offices and hangars was ``part of an ongoing investigation into possible violations of federal laws pertaining to maintenance and record keeping and making false statements.''

FBI spokesman Brian Kensel said 40 to 50 agents from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration searched three of SunJet's offices and four of its planes at Orlando Sanford Airport on Tuesday.

``We did take some documents and items from the building,'' Kensel said but declined to elaborate.

The investigation was prompted by the Oct. 25, 1999, crash of a Sunjet-owned Learjet 3 in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in which six people died, the FBI said.

Killed with U.S. Open champion Stewart were business associates Robert Fraley, Van Ardan and Bruce Borland, and SunJet pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue.

SunJet operated the Lear 35 twin-engine jet that was scheduled to take Stewart and his associates from Orlando to Dallas. The plane veered off course and flew for hours with no one at the controls, finally crashing in South Dakota after running out of fuel.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators have yet to issue their findings but were examining whether there was a loss of cabin pressure that could have caused the passengers and crew to die of oxygen starvation before the plane crashed.

Asked if Tuesday's search was part of a criminal probe, Brian Kensel said, ``Some of those (potential violations) can be criminal violations, some may be regulatory violations -- FAA rules, things like that.''

SunJet officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday. But the company's chief pilot, Jim Watkins, told the Orlando Sentinel that SunJet had broken no laws and has never cut corners on maintenance or falsified records.

``Do you think we'd fly on these planes ourselves if we weren't doing the maintenance?'' Watkins asked. ``We're not very bright, but we're not that damn dumb.''

One of the four SunJet planes the agents searched was Lear 35, identical to the one that crashed. Company officials have repeatedly said proper maintenance was performed on the 23-year-old aircraft that crashed and that no records were falsified.

Federal regulations require airlines and mechanics to document repairs and maintenance performed on aircraft. Falsifying those records is a federal crime.

-- viewer (justp@ssing.by), April 12, 2000

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