Japan Airlines Flight 123
JA8119, the aircraft involved in the accident at Osaka International Airport in 1984
|Date||August 12, 1985|
|Summary||In-flight structural failure due to improper repair, leading to rapid decompression and loss of control|
|Site||Mount Takamagahara, Japan |
|Aircraft type||Boeing 747SR-46|
|Flight origin||Tokyo International Airport|
|Destination||Osaka International Airport|
Japan Airlines Flight 123 was a scheduled domestic Japan Airlines passenger flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Osaka International Airport, Japan. On Monday, August 12, 1985, a Boeing 747SR operating this route suffered a sudden decompression twelve minutes into the flight and crashed in the area of Mount Takamagahara, Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Tokyo thirty-two minutes later. The crash site was on Osutaka Ridge, near Mount Osutaka.
Japan's Aircraft Accident Investigation Commission officially concluded that the rapid decompression was caused by a faulty repair by Boeing technicians after a tailstrike incident during a landing at Osaka Airport seven years earlier (1978). A doubler plate on the rear bulkhead of the plane had been improperly repaired, compromising the plane's airworthiness. Cabin pressurization continued to expand and contract the improperly repaired bulkhead until the day of the accident, when the faulty repair finally failed, causing the rapid decompression that ripped off a large portion of the tail and caused the loss of hydraulic controls to the entire plane.
The aircraft, configured with increased economy class seating, was carrying 524 people. Casualties of the crash included all 15 crew members and 505 of the 509 passengers; some passengers survived the initial crash but subsequently died of their injuries hours later, mostly due to the Japan Self-Defense Forces’s decision to wait until the next day to go to the crash site, after denying an offer from a nearby United States Air Force base to start an immediate rescue operation. It remains the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history, the second-deadliest Boeing 747 accident and the second-deadliest aviation accident after the collision of two Boeing 747s in the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster.
Aircraft and crew
The accident aircraft was registered JA8119 and was a Boeing 747-146SR (Short Range). Its first flight was on January 28, 1974. It had more than 25,000 airframe hours and more than 18,800 cycles (one cycle equals one takeoff and landing).
At the time of the accident the aircraft was on the fifth of its six planned flights of the day. There were fifteen crew members, including three cockpit crew and 12 flight attendants.
The cockpit crew consisted of the following:
- Captain Masami Takahama (高浜 雅己 Takahama Masami) from Akita, Japan, served as a training instructor for First Officer Yutaka Sasaki on the flight, supervising him while handling the radio communications. A veteran pilot, having logged approximately 12,400 total flight hours, roughly 4,850 of which were accumulated flying 747s, Masami Takahama was aged 49 at the time of the accident.
- First Officer Yutaka Sasaki (佐々木 祐 Sasaki Yutaka) from Kobe was in line for promotion to the rank of Captain and flew Flight 123 as one of his training flights. Sasaki, who was 39 years old at the time of the incident, had approximately 4,000 total flight hours to his credit and he had logged roughly 2,650 hours in the 747.
- Flight Engineer Hiroshi Fukuda (福田 博 Fukuda Hiroshi) from Kyoto, the 46-year-old veteran flight engineer of the flight who had approximately 9,800 total flight hours, of which roughly 3,850 were accrued flying 747s.
The flight was around the Obon holiday period in Japan, when many Japanese people make yearly trips to their hometowns or resorts. Around twenty-one non-Japanese boarded the flight. By August 13, 1985, Geoffrey Tudor, a spokesman for Japan Airlines, stated that the list included four residents of Hong Kong, two each from Italy and the United States, and one each from West Germany and the United Kingdom. Some foreigners had dual nationalities, and some of them were residents of Japan.
The four survivors, all female, were seated on the left side and toward the middle of seat rows 54–60, in the rear of the aircraft. The four survivors were:
- Yumi Ochiai (落合 由美 Ochiai Yumi), a 26-year-old off-duty JAL flight attendant who was jammed between seats;
- Hiroko Yoshizaki (吉崎 博子 Yoshizaki Hiroko), a 34-year-old woman;
- Mikiko Yoshizaki (吉崎 美紀子 Yoshizaki Mikiko), Hiroko's 8-year-old daughter--Hiroko and Mikiko were both trapped in an intact section of the fuselage; and
- Keiko Kawakami (川上 慶子 Kawakami Keiko), a 12-year-old girl who was rescued from under the wreckage. Air Disaster Volume 2 stated that she was wedged between branches in a tree. Kawakami's parents and younger sister died in the crash, and she was the last survivor to be released from hospital. She was treated at the Matsue Red Cross Hospital in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture before her release on Friday, November 22, 1985.
Sequence of events
The aircraft landed at Haneda from New Chitose Airport at 4:50PM as JL514. After more than an hour on the ramp, Flight 123 pushed back from gate 18 at 6:04 p.m. and took off from Runway 15L at Haneda Airport in Ōta, Tokyo, Japan, at 6:12 p.m., twelve minutes behind schedule. About 12 minutes after takeoff, at near cruising altitude over Sagami Bay, the aircraft's aft pressure bulkhead burst open due to a pre-existing defect stemming from a panel that had been incorrectly repaired after a tailstrike accident 7 years earlier. This caused a rapid decompression of the aircraft, bringing down the ceiling around the rear lavatories, damaging the unpressurized fuselage aft of the bulkhead, unseating the vertical stabilizer, and severing all four hydraulic lines. A photograph taken from the ground confirmed that the vertical stabilizer was missing.
The pilots set their transponder to broadcast a distress signal. Tokyo Area Control Center directed the aircraft to descend and follow emergency landing vectors. Because of control problems, Captain Takahama requested a vector to Haneda, declining ATC's suggestion to divert to Nagoya Airport.
Hydraulic fluid completely drained away through the rupture. With total loss of hydraulic control and non-functional control surfaces, plus the lack of stabilizing influence from the vertical stabilizer, the aircraft began up and down oscillation in a phugoid cycle. In response, the pilots exerted efforts to establish stability using differential engine thrust. Further measures to exert control, such as lowering the landing gear and flaps, interfered with control by throttle, and the aircrew's ability to control the aircraft deteriorated.
Upon descending to 13,500 feet (4100 m), the pilots reported an uncontrollable aircraft. Heading over the Izu Peninsula the pilots turned towards the Pacific Ocean, then back towards the shore; they descended below 7,000 feet (2100 m) before returning to a climb. The aircraft reached 13,000 feet (4000 m) before entering an uncontrollable descent into the mountains and disappearing from radar at 6:56 p.m. at 6,800 feet (2100 m). In the final moments, the wing clipped a mountain ridge. During a subsequent rapid plunge, the plane then slammed into a second ridge, then flipped and landed on its back.
The aircraft's crash point, at an elevation of 1,565 metres (5,135 ft), is located in Sector 76, State Forest, 3577 Aza Hontani, Ouaza Narahara, Ueno Village, Tano District, Gunma Prefecture. The east-west ridge is about 2.5 kilometres (8,200 ft) north north west of Mount Mikuni. Ed Magnuson of Time magazine said that the area where the aircraft crashed was referred to as the "Tibet" of Gunma Prefecture. The elapsed time from the bulkhead failure to the crash was 32 minutes.(pp123,127)
Delayed rescue operation
United States Air Force controllers at Yokota Air Base situated near the flight path of Flight 123 had been monitoring the distressed aircraft's calls for help. They maintained contact throughout the ordeal with Japanese flight control officials and made their landing strip available to the aeroplane. The Atsugi Naval Base also cleared their runway for JAL 123 after being alerted of the ordeal. After losing track on radar, a U.S. Air Force C-130 from the 345th TAS was asked to search for the missing plane. The C-130 crew was the first to spot the crash site 20 minutes after impact, while it was still daylight. The crew sent the location to Japanese authorities and radioed Yokota Air Base to alert them and directed a Huey helicopter from Yokota to the crash site. Rescue teams were assembled in preparation to lower Marines down for rescues by helicopter tow line. Despite American offers of assistance in locating and recovering the crashed plane, an order arrived, saying that U.S. personnel were to stand down and announcing that the Japan Self-Defense Forces were going to take care of it themselves and outside help was not necessary. To this day, it is unclear why U.S. forces were denied permission to begin their intended search and rescue missions.
Although a JSDF helicopter eventually spotted the wreck during the night, poor visibility and the difficult mountainous terrain prevented it from landing at the site. The pilot reported from the air that there were no signs of survivors. Based on this report, JSDF personnel on the ground did not set out to the site the night of the crash. Instead, they were dispatched to spend the night at a makeshift village erecting tents, constructing helicopter landing ramps and engaging in other preparations, 63 kilometers (39.1 miles) from the wreck. Rescue teams did not set out for the crash site until the following morning. Medical staff later found bodies with injuries suggesting that individuals had survived the crash only to die from shock, exposure overnight in the mountains, or from injuries that, if tended to earlier, would not have been fatal. One doctor said "If the discovery had come ten hours earlier, we could have found more survivors."
Off-duty flight attendant Yumi Ochiai, one of the four survivors out of 524 passengers and crew, recounted from her hospital bed that she recalled bright lights and the sound of helicopter rotors shortly after she awoke amid the wreckage, and while she could hear screaming and moaning from other survivors, these sounds gradually died away during the night.
The official cause of the crash according to the report published by Japan's Aircraft Accident Investigation Commission is as follows:
- The aircraft was involved in a tailstrike incident at Osaka International Airport seven years earlier as JAL Flight 115, which damaged the aircraft's rear pressure bulkhead.
- The subsequent repair of the bulkhead did not conform to Boeing's approved repair methods. For reinforcing a damaged bulkhead, Boeing's repair procedure calls for one continuous splice plate with three rows of rivets. However, the Boeing technicians carrying out the repair had used two splice plates parallel to the stress crack. Cutting the plate in this manner negated the effectiveness of one of the rows of rivets, reducing the part's resistance to fatigue cracking to about 70% of that for a correct repair. During the investigation, the Accident Investigation Commission calculated that this incorrect installation would fail after approximately 10,000 pressurization cycles; the aircraft accomplished 12,318 successful flights from the time that the faulty repair was made to when the crash happened.
- Consequently, after repeated pressurization cycles during normal flight, the bulkhead gradually started to crack near one of the two rows of rivets holding it together. When it finally failed, the resulting rapid decompression ruptured the lines of all four hydraulic systems and ejected the vertical stabilizer. With many of the aircraft's flight controls disabled, the aircraft became uncontrollable.
Aftermath and legacy
The Japanese public's confidence in Japan Airlines took a dramatic downturn in the wake of the disaster, with passenger numbers on domestic routes dropping by one third. Rumors persisted that Boeing had admitted fault to cover up shortcomings in the airline's inspection procedures, thus protecting the reputation of a major customer. In the months after the crash, domestic traffic decreased by as much as 25%. In 1986, for the first time in a decade, fewer passengers boarded JAL's overseas flights during the New Year period than the previous year. Some of them considered switching to All Nippon Airways as a safer alternative.
JAL paid ¥780 million (US$7.6 million) to the victims' relatives in the form of "condolence money" without admitting liability. JAL president, Yasumoto Takagi (高木 養根), resigned. In the aftermath of the incident, Hiroo Tominaga, a JAL maintenance manager, killed himself to atone for the incident, while Susumu Tajima, an engineer who had inspected and cleared the aircraft as flightworthy, committed suicide due to difficulties at work.
In compliance with standard procedures, Japan Airlines dropped the flight number 123 for their Haneda-Itami routes, changing it to Flight 121 and Flight 127 on September 1, 1985. While Boeing 747s were still used on the same route operating with the new flight numbers in the years following the crash, they were replaced by the Boeing 767 or Boeing 777 in the mid-1990s. The 747s continued serving JAL until their 2011 retirement. March 2 of the same year saw the retirement of the airline's final two 747s, which were -400 series.
In 2009, stairs with a handrail were installed to facilitate visitors' access to the crash site. Japan Transport Minister Seiji Maehara visited the site on August 12, 2010, to pray for the victims. Families of the victims, together with local volunteer groups, hold an annual memorial gathering every August 12 near the crash site in Gunma Prefecture.
The crash led to the 2006 opening of the Safety Promotion Center, which is located in the Daini Sogo Building in the grounds of Haneda Airport. This center was created for training purposes to alert employees to the importance of airline safety and their personal responsibility to ensure safety. The center has displays regarding aviation safety, the history of the crash, and selected pieces of the aircraft and passenger effects (including handwritten farewell notes). It is open to the public by appointment made two months prior to the visit.
The captain's daughter, Yoko Takahama, who was a high school student at the time of the crash, went on to become a flight attendant for Japan Airlines. Diana Yukawa, who was born after the crash, and her older sister Cassie, were the daughters of English ballet dancer Susanne Bayly and married Japanese banker Akihisa Yukawa. Yukawa died in the crash, and Bayly received a £340,000 settlement to sign papers effectively disinheriting her daughters and to remain silent, preventing embarrassment to Yukawa’s family. The sisters received an undisclosed payout from the airline in 2002.
In popular culture
- The events of Flight 123 were featured in "Out of Control," a Season 3 (2005) episode of the Canadian TV series Mayday, which is called Air Emergency and Air Disasters in the U.S. and Air Crash Investigation in the UK and elsewhere around the world. The dramatization was broadcast with the title "Osutaka-no-One (御巣鷹の尾根)" in Japan. The flight was also included in a Mayday Season 6 (2007) Science of Disaster special titled "Fatal Flaw," which was broadcast with the title "Fatal Fix" in the United Kingdom, Australia and Asia.
- The documentary series Aircrash Confidential featured the crash in a second-season episode titled "Poor Maintenance," which first aired on March 15, 2012, on the Discovery Channel in the United Kingdom.
- The National Geographic Channel's documentary series Seconds From Disaster featured the accident in an episode titled "Terrified over Tokyo," released in December 2012.
- Climber's High, the best-selling novel by Hideo Yokoyama, revolves around the reporting of the crash at the fictional newspaper Kita-Kanto Shimbun. Yokoyama was a journalist at the Jōmō Shimbun at the time of the crash. A film released in 2008, and also titled Climber's High, is based on the novel.
- In 2009, the film Shizumanu Taiyō, starring Ken Watanabe, was released for national distribution in Japan. The film gives a semi-fictional account of the internal airline corporate disputes and politics surrounding the crash. However, the film does not mention Japanese Airlines by name, using the name "National Airlines" instead. JAL not only refused to co-operate with the making of the film but also bitterly criticized the film, saying that it "not only damages public trust in the company but could lead to a loss of customers."
- The cockpit voice recording (CVR) of the incident was incorporated into the script of a 1999 play called Charlie Victor Romeo.
- The 2004 album Reise Reise, by the German band Rammstein, is based on the Japan Airlines disaster. A fragment of the flight recording is hidden in the pregap of the first track on some pressings of the album.
- In 2011, British academic Christopher Hood published a book, titled Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash, on the crash and its effect on Japanese society.
- China Airlines Flight 611 – 2002
- British European Airways Flight 706 – 1971
- List of aircraft accidents and incidents resulting in at least 50 fatalities
Similar accidents involving loss of flight controls:
- United Airlines Flight 232 – caused by a catastrophic engine failure, 1989
- Baghdad DHL attempted shootdown incident – caused by a surface-to-air missile striking the left wing, 2003
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