Worst-ever Single-aircraft Disaster (Japan, 1985)

This disaster in Japan, where a Boeing 747 staggered drunkenly around the sky for half an hour, with passengers writing last wishes on their boarding passes, must have been a terrifying experience and is the worst single-aircraft crash ever in terms of souls lost.

Japan Airlines Flight 123, August 12, 1985

Off-duty flight attendant Yumi Ochiai
felt her hair lift off her neck
and a momentary sense of weightlessness
as the staggering 747,
with its 524 terrified occupants,
began its final downward plunge.
Shaving the trees on one mountain ridge
it ended up on another.
Her pelvis broken, and trapped between seats
in the remains of the broken-off tail section,
she was fitfully aware of the sound of young children,
their cries fading as the injuries, shock,
and cold of the night took their toll.
A young boy cried out,
“I am a man!”

The Boeing 747 SR (short range), a jumbo specially adapted and reinforced to carry as many as 550 passengers on domestic short-haul routes in Japan, was the early-evening shuttle from Tokyo’s domestic Haneda airport to Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, four hundred kilometers away to the south. The flight was being flown by First Officer Yutaka Sasaki, thirty-nine, an experienced pilot training for promotion to captain. In the right-hand seat, acting as copilot, was Captain Masami Takahama, forty-nine, a JAL instructor with more than 12,400 hours’ experience. Hiroshi Fukuda was the flight engineer.

Unusually, the occupants were mostly women and children, for it was the Obon August holiday period, when the Japanese go back to their hometowns to visit family graves and see relations. The aircraft was virtually full, and most of the passengers were clad in only the lightest of clothes in anticipation of a clammy midsummer evening. As in a number of flights that have ended in disaster, the flight number, JL123, is easy to remember.

Haneda, situated at the edge of Tokyo Bay and very close to the center of the city, had served as Tokyo’s international airport until the construction of Narita Airport in the face of fierce opposition some fifty miles (eighty kilometers) away. With little need for noise abatement over the sea, JL123’s climb out of Haneda was a simple affair. Ten or so minutes after takeoff, the busy pilots were able to relax. Everything seemed normal.

The first indication the Tokyo controller had that everything was not so came without any forewarning at 7:25 p.m., thirteen minutes after takeoff, and just as JL123 was leveling out at its cruising altitude, when the echo for the aircraft on his radar screen switched to 7700, the emergency code.

Shortly afterward came the following disjointed call from the aircraft:
Tokyo. Japan Air 123. Request immediate . . . ah . . . trouble. Request return back to Haneda . . . Descend and maintain Flight Level 220.

JL123 then asked for the vector (course) back to Oshima Island, the waypoint on the easiest route over the sea back to Haneda.
The controller gave the crew permission to descend and indicated the appropriate course, but instead of turning 177 degrees to go back on its tracks, JL123 merely made a very slow right turn of some 40 degrees. Surprised by this noncompliance, the Tokyo controller repeated his instructions.

JL123 still did not comply, and with the aircraft heading for dangerous mountains, Japan Airlines’ operations center called them on the company frequency, without extracting more information, except that the crew thought a rear cabin door (R5) was broken and that they were going to descend.

Watched by the air traffic controllers in Tokyo, the 747 meandered in an area of treacherous mountains not far from Japan’s famous Mount Fuji. The pilots kept repeating they were out of control while at the same time requesting directions back to Haneda. Periodically losing considerable height and partially regaining it, the aircraft at one point made a tight 360-degree turn.

Finally, after some thirty minutes the echo on the screens showed JL123 rapidly losing altitude, before sinking out of radar view. The controllers vainly hoped the 747 had merely gone into a valley, but getting no reply on the radio, they finally accepted that it must have crashed.