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Airliner crashes off Pacific coast

As of early today, none of the 88 people aboard the Alaska Airlines MD-80 had been found alive in the chilly water.

An Alaska Airlines MD-80 jetliner crashed in the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles Monday after the pilot reported mechanical difficulties. The Coast Guard launched a massive search, but no survivors had been found by early today.

Flight 261 was en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco when the pilot reported problems, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans said 83 passengers and five crew members were aboard the plane.

"There's always hope that there would be a survivor out there," said Coast Guard Capt. George Wright. "We've had miracles happen in the past in recovering people that seemingly couldn't survive."

The crash occurred about 7:36 p.m. Eastern, or 4:36 p.m. Pacific time.

A National Park Service ranger on Anacapa Island, near the crash site, "observed a jet going down," spokeswoman Susan Smith said at Channel Islands National Park headquarters. "From his observation it was nose first."

Television pictures showed the ocean's surface dotted with foam, plastic, paper and what appeared to be pieces of the jet. The Coast Guard said several bodies had been found Monday night, but wouldn't provide a specific number.

Coast Guard aircraft and small boats converged on the area off Point Mugu just before sunset. Hours later, the high-power lights of commercial squid boats illuminated the darkness as the search continued.

The weather was clear, and the water temperature was about 58 degrees. The water is about 750 feet deep at the crash site, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Jim McPherson.

The jet's crew had reported mechanical difficulties and asked to land at Los Angeles, according to officials from the FAA and the San Francisco airport.

"Radar indicates it fell from 17,000 feet and then was lost from radar," airport spokesman Ron Wilson told KRON-TV in San Francisco.

Len Sloper, an Alaska Airlines customer service agent in Los Angeles, said the pilot had reported having problems with the stabilizer trim, a device that looks like a small wing mounted on top of the tail and that is used to keep the plane flying smooth and level. If the pilots were having trouble with it, they might have had difficulty keeping the plane's nose from going up or down.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators early today.

Monday's crash was the second major MD-80 incident in seven months. On June 1, American Airlines Flight 1420 landed in a thunderstorm in Little Rock, Ark., skidded off the runway and struck a light structure. The pilot and 10 passengers were killed.

The Little Rock investigation has focused largely on the possibility of pilot error: whether the crew made a mistake by choosing to land in the heavy storm.

The Alaska Airlines plane was an MD-83 model, manufactured in 1992, the FAA said. The MD-80 series planes are newer versions of the Douglas DC-9, used for short- and medium-length flights such as Tampa to Washington. The plane was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas, but the company has since been bought by Boeing, which will be part of the investigation.

"We will put all our resources into assisting the NTSB," Phil Condit, Boeing's chairman and CEO, said late Monday on CNN.

Alaska Airlines, which has a distinctive image of an Eskimo painted on the tails of its planes, has built itself into a western power by serving more than 40 cities in Alaska, Canada, Mexico and five Western states. Its headquarters are in Seattle.

The airline operates several flights from Puerto Vallarta, a resort on Mexico's Pacific coast, to San Jose, San Francisco and other California cities.

The airline had two fatal accidents in the 1970s, both in Alaska, according to Airsafe.com, a Web site that tracks plane crashes.

Wilson said San Francisco airport officials offered to help friends and families of the victims Monday night.

"Whatever they want us to do," he said. "We'll put them up for the night. We'll feed them. We'll console them. We'll bring to them whatever they desire."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

MD-83

The Alaska Airlines jet that crashed off the Los Angeles coast was an MD-83, part of the MD-80 series aircraft built by McDonnell Douglas. The aircraft, Flight 261, was never previously involved in an accident, said FAA spokesman John Clabes.

The MD-80 is a twin-jet version of the more widely known DC-9, with a single aisle and an engine on each side of the tail. The MD-80 went into service in 1980 and has had at least five variations that offer different ranges, seating capacities and cockpit electronics.

Fatal events involving MD-80 series aircraft include:

On June 1, 1999, an American Airlines MD-82 crashed and ran off the runway in Little Rock, Ark., killing 11 people.

On July 6, 1996, a Delta MD-88 taking off from Pensacola, Fla., aborted its landing after an engine fan hub blew apart, killing a vacationing mother and her son and injuring three others.

On Nov. 13, 1993, an MD-82 belonging to China's Northern Airlines crashed and burned in a rice paddy in Urumqi, a western Chinese city, killing 12 people and injuring at least 60.

On Oct. 26, 1993, an MD-82 overshot a runway in China, killing two people.

On June 12, 1988, an Austral Lineas Aereas MD-81 crashed three miles short of the airport in Posadas, Argentina, during an approach in poor visibility. All 15 passengers and seven crew were killed.

On Aug. 16, 1987, a Northwest Airlines MD-80 crashed on takeoff at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, killing 156.

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