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"Loud noise' heralds jet's fatal plunge

The noise revealed by the cockpit voice recorder is one of two heard near the end of the Alaska Airlines flight.

One of the "black boxes" aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 261 recorded a loud noise in the minutes before the MD-83 went out of control and plunged into the ocean, a federal investigator said Friday.

The noise was one of two revealed by analysis of the cockpit voice recorder, said John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The tape revealed new details of what occurred on the flight in its last minutes as the pilots struggled to control a problem with the horizontal stabilizer _ the wide part of the tail that keeps a plane flying level.

The plane nose-dived into the Pacific Ocean en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco on Monday, killing all 88 aboard.

About 12 minutes before the end of the recording the plane apparently lost vertical control, Hammerschmidt said.

The crew recovered control in about 1{ minutes. Some time later, a flight attendant is heard telling the pilots of a loud noise from the rear of the jet.

"The crew acknowledged that they had heard it too," Hammerschmidt said.

A second noise, which was actually recorded by the device, then sounded just near the end of the tape.

"Slightly more than one minute before the end of the recording, a loud noise can be heard on the recording and the airplane appears to go out of control," he said.

The plane has an audible alarm to indicate a stall, or dangerous loss of lift. No such warning is heard on the tape, Hammerschmidt said.

The noises, and the fact that control was regained after the first sound, are consistent with a worsening structural or mechanical problem in the tail, said William Waldock, associate director of the Center for Aerospace Safety Education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

"It sounds like something failed in the tail, and it certainly would account for a jammed stabilizer," he said, but cautioned that it was impossible to diagnose the noises without a better description of them.

The noises could have originated from any number of problems, including structural failure or a compressor stall in the engines caused by erratic airflow, said C.O. Miller, who headed the NTSB's Bureau of Safety during much of the 1980s.

Hammerschmidt said the investigation was progressing rapidly, including work by a Navy vessel using side-scan sonar to map debris in the Santa Barbara Channel about 10 miles from shore.

Sonar appeared to show the debris in a single concentration within an area the size of a football field, and the survey was continuing 1 mile out in each direction, he said.

Some of the debris has been videotaped by a remote-operated underwater vehicle. Most of the debris examined so far were pieces about 5 or 6 feet long, but there was a section of fuselage estimated to be 10 feet long.

The submersible has sent video of the tail and a 5-foot section of the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer, Hammerschmidt said. The stabilizer is 40 feet long.

The process of getting sonar pictures of the ocean floor _ sailors call it "mowing the lawn" _ had been expected to take two to three days, but Hammerschmidt said it would likely be completed Friday. After that, remote-operated vehicles will be sent down to take video images and eventually help retrieve bodies and wreckage.

The NTSB has said that radio transmissions and witness reports from other commercial pilots in the area show the plane turned upside down or "corkscrewed" into the water following a series of increasingly desperate maneuvers.

Also Friday, relatives of victims, many of whom worked for or were connected with Alaska Airlines, were preparing for another private memorial, set for today in the Pepperdine University chapel overlooking the ocean in Malibu. On Sunday, the Coast Guard planned to drop flowers from that service over the crash site.

Fifteen members of various bands of American Indians gathered on marshland near Point Mugu Friday for a ceremony in honor of victim Morris Thompson and his family.

A prominent Athabaskan Indian leader in Alaska and former commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Thompson, 61, his wife, Thelma, and daughter Sheryl were killed in the crash.

Only four bodies have been recovered.