JAL Flight 123
Contributor: Barry Fetzer
Sources: History.com, Wikipedia
Suffering a mishap that takes control away from pilots is perhaps the most frightening of mishaps. No one of us humans like to lose control of anything (although the old adage that “Man plans and God laughs” applies here), but when a pilot and copilot can no longer control an aircraft because of hydraulic failure, and you’re a passenger in the back completely powerless to do anything except pray and depend on the flight crew to regain control and save your life? Well, it’s hard to image being in that situation. The fact that some survived this mishap is a miracle.
From History.com: “At 6:50 p.m. local time, a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747SR crashed on August 12, 1985 into Mount Otsuka, 70 miles northwest of Tokyo at a point 4,780 feet above sea level. There were 524 people aboard, and all but four were dead by the time rescuers reached the remote crash site 12 hours later.
Photograph of JAL 123 just before the crash at 6:47 p.m. (Wikipedia)
JAL flight 123 took off from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport under the command of Captain Takahama at 6:12 p.m. local time. Twelve minutes into the flight, as the jumbo jet was approaching its cruising altitude, an explosion shook the aircraft. A bulkhead had blown in the tail, creating over-pressurization that severed the four sets of hydraulic-control lines and blew part of the tail section off. With a total loss of hydraulic pressure, the captain radioed he was getting no response from his controls.
For the next 27 minutes, Takahama attempted unsuccessfully to regain control of the aircraft as it descended uncontrollably in a flight condition known as the ‘Dutch roll.’”
From Wikipedia: “Despite the complete loss of control, the pilots continued to turn the control wheel, pull on the control column, and move the rudder pedals up until the moment of the crash. The pilots also began efforts to establish control using differential engine thrust, as the aircraft slowly wandered back towards Haneda. Their efforts were of limited success. The unpressurized aircraft rose and fell in an altitude range of 20,000–24,000 feet for 18 minutes, from the moment of decompression until around 6:40 p.m., with the pilots seemingly unable to figure out how to descend without flight controls. This is possibly due to the effects of hypoxia at such altitudes, as the pilots seemed to have difficulty comprehending their situation as the aircraft pitched and rolled uncontrollably. The pilots possibly were focused, instead, on the cause of the explosion they had heard, and the subsequent difficulty in controlling the jet. The flight engineer did say they should put on their oxygen masks when word reached the cockpit that the rear-most passenger masks had stopped working. None of the pilots put on their oxygen masks, however, though the captain simply replied ‘yes’ to both suggestions by the flight engineer to do so. The accident report indicates that the captain’s disregard of the suggestion is one of several features ‘regarded as hypoxia-related in the Cockpit Voice Recording.’ Their voices can be heard relatively clearly on the cockpit area microphone for the entire duration, until the crash, indicating that they did not put on their oxygen masks at any point in the flight.
A United States Air Force navigator stationed at Yokota Air Base published an account in 1995 that stated that the U.S. military had monitored the distress calls and prepared a search-and-rescue operation that was aborted at the call of Japanese authorities. A U.S. Air Force C-130 crew was the first to spot the crash site 20 minutes after impact, while it was still daylight, and radioed the location to the Japanese and Yokota Air Base, where an Iroquois helicopter was dispatched. An article in the Pacific Stars and Stripes from 1985 stated that personnel at Yokota were on standby to help with rescue operations, but were never called by the Japanese government.
A Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) helicopter later spotted the wreck after nightfall. Poor visibility and the difficult mountainous terrain prevented it from landing at the site. The pilot reported from the air no signs of survivors. Based on this report, JSDF personnel on the ground did not set out to the site on 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, 39 miles from the crash site. Rescue teams set out for the site the following morning. Medical staff later found bodies with injuries suggesting that people had survived the crash only to die from shock, exposure overnight in the mountains, or injuries that, if tended to earlier, would not have been fatal. One doctor said, ‘If the discovery had come 10 hours earlier, we could have found more survivors.’
One of the four survivors, off-duty Japan Air Lines flight purser Yumi Ochiai 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 four survivors, all women, were seated on the left side and toward the middle of seat rows 54–60, in the rear of the aircraft.”