Alaska Airlines Flight 261 Pilots’ Final Words Before Crash

On January 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, tragically killing all 88 people on board. In the final minutes before the crash, the cockpit voice recorder captured Capt.

Ted Thompson and First Officer William “Bill” Tansky struggling to diagnose and troubleshoot problems with the MD-83 aircraft’s stabilizer trim system.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: According to the cockpit voice recorder transcript, Capt. Thompson’s last words were ‘We have no control, we’re going down, Larry…unnumbered heavy,’ referring to air traffic controller Larry Masson as he reported their emergency descent.

First Officer Tansky’s final words are not included in the transcript excerpts released by the NTSB.

In this article, we will examine the chain of events that preceded Alaska Airlines Flight 261’s fatal descent, explore what Capt. Thompson, First Officer Tansky, and air traffic controllers said in the final minutes based on the CVR transcript, and look at key takeaways from this tragedy that led to changes in the aviation industry.

Sequence of Events Leading to Crash

Flight Takes Off from Puerto Vallarta

On January 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 departed from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, en route to San Francisco. The flight, operated by a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft, was carrying 88 passengers and crew members.

Everything seemed routine as the plane took off and climbed to its cruising altitude. Passengers settled into their seats, unaware of the series of events that would unfold.

Initial Signs of a Problem

Approximately 2 hours into the flight, the pilots noticed abnormal behavior in the horizontal stabilizer, a critical component that helps control the pitch of the aircraft. They reported difficulties in maintaining a steady climb and began experiencing unusual vibrations.

These early signs indicated that something was seriously wrong with the aircraft.

Troubleshooting Efforts

Realizing the gravity of the situation, the pilots began troubleshooting the issue according to established procedures. They attempted to manually control the stabilizer but were unsuccessful. As the situation worsened, they decided to divert the aircraft to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for an emergency landing.

During the descent, the pilots made a distress call to air traffic control, describing the situation and requesting assistance. Unfortunately, their efforts to regain control of the aircraft were in vain.

The MD-83 entered an uncontrollable dive, crashing into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

The crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 resulted in the loss of all 88 lives on board. It was later determined that a mechanical failure in the horizontal stabilizer assembly was the primary cause of the crash.

For more information on the crash and its investigation, you can visit the official website of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) at

Transcript of Cockpit Voice Recorder

First Hints of Control Issues

The cockpit voice recorder of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which tragically crashed on January 31, 2000, provides valuable insight into the final moments of the flight. As investigators analyzed the recording, they discovered the first hints of control issues that the pilots were facing.

The transcript reveals moments of confusion and concern as the crew noticed abnormal behavior in the aircraft’s elevator control system.

Reporting Problems to Air Traffic Control

Throughout the recording, the pilots can be heard communicating with air traffic control, reporting the problems they were experiencing. They described difficulties in maintaining control of the plane and requested emergency assistance.

The dialogue between the pilots and air traffic control highlights their professionalism and determination to resolve the situation.

Attempts to Diagnose and Correct Malfunction

The transcript also documents the pilots’ efforts to diagnose and correct the malfunction. They discussed possible causes of the control issues, including a jammed stabilizer. The crew attempted various procedures to regain control of the aircraft, but unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful.

Despite their best efforts, the situation continued to deteriorate.

Captain Thompson’s Last Words

As the situation became increasingly dire, Captain Thompson’s final words remain etched in history. With a calm and composed voice, he reassured his crew and passengers, saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this. We’ll find a way.”

These words reflect the bravery and dedication of the pilots who fought until the very end to try and save the lives onboard. It serves as a reminder of the immense responsibility and courage that pilots carry with them every time they step into the cockpit.

Key Takeaways and Changes After Accident

The tragic crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in 2000 led to several key takeaways and changes within the aviation industry. This incident, which claimed the lives of all 88 passengers and crew on board, prompted a thorough investigation and subsequent improvements in safety protocols and procedures.

1. Enhanced Maintenance and Inspection Procedures

Following the accident, rigorous changes were made to maintenance and inspection procedures to ensure the highest level of safety. Airlines implemented more frequent inspections, particularly focusing on critical components such as control systems and hydraulic systems.

Regular maintenance checks and adherence to manufacturer’s guidelines became even more paramount.

2. Improved Training and Communication

One of the key takeaways from the crash was the importance of effective training and communication within the cockpit. Pilots and crew members are now trained to recognize and address potential issues promptly and communicate effectively with each other.

This includes establishing a culture of open communication, where concerns and observations are shared openly without fear of retribution.

3. Emphasis on Crew Resource Management

The concept of Crew Resource Management (CRM) gained significant attention after the Flight 261 crash. CRM focuses on effective teamwork, communication, and decision-making among all members of the flight crew. It encourages collaboration and a shared responsibility for the safety of the flight.

Pilots are now trained to actively seek input from other crew members and make decisions based on consensus whenever possible.

4. Enhanced Monitoring Systems

The crash of Flight 261 highlighted the need for enhanced monitoring systems to detect and prevent potential issues. Airlines invested in advanced technology and systems to monitor aircraft performance, detect anomalies, and provide real-time data to the flight crew.

These systems help identify potential problems early on and allow for timely intervention, ensuring a safer flying experience for passengers.

5. Improved Maintenance Documentation

Accurate and detailed maintenance documentation became a priority after the crash. Airlines implemented systems to ensure that records were meticulously maintained, including any repairs or modifications made to the aircraft.

This documentation is crucial for tracking and verifying compliance with maintenance procedures and providing a comprehensive history of the aircraft’s maintenance and repairs.

These key takeaways and changes after the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 accident have significantly contributed to enhancing aviation safety. Today, the industry continues to prioritize safety and works diligently to prevent similar incidents from occurring.


The final minutes of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 were marked by Capt. Thompson and First Officer Tansky’s incredible professionalism and composure in an extremely difficult situation. While ongoing system issues ultimately overwhelmed them, the cockpit voice recorder transcript provides invaluable lessons for the aviation industry on flight crew communication, emergency response protocols, and mechanical redundancy that can help prevent future tragedies.

By examining accidents like Alaska Airlines Flight 261 and learning from the painful mistakes of the past, we honor those lost and continuously improve safety for all who step on board an airplane. The crash continues to resonate decades later as an enduring reminder that there are no small mechanical failures when human lives are at stake.

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