How a Faulty Repair Led to the Deadliest Single-Airplane Crash of All Time

How a Faulty Repair Led to the Deadliest Single-Airplane Crash of All Time

Susanne Bayly-Yukawa will remember, perhaps most of all, how she and her friend would not like getting on the plane. It was the 12th of August, 1985, on a Monday, when Akihisa Yukawa was due to arrive in Osaka for a single night. The two had been in London eight years earlier when Yukawa’s job brought him to England to serve as branch manager for the Sumitomo Bank. Then, he returned to Japan and was responsible for developing the bank’s aircraft leasing financing department. The banker flew with Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Osaka every week to work. The Monday morning, however, was something else.

“He spent the whole morning saying he was in a really unusual mood, and it was unusual for him because he was flying all the time,” Bayly-Yukawa recalls.

Yukawa even went as he asked his assistant to reserve seats in his bullet train for him. The train was, however, full of people, and millions of Japanese citizens were moving around this week, preparing for Obon. (The annual festival, celebrated in August, is a time to allow people to return to their ancestral homelands to remember their ancestors.) When Yukawa returned to his home after lunch, the Japanese man was annoyed that the head office required him to travel to Osaka.

“He desperately wanted to cancel going,” says Bayly-Yukawa. At the time, she was just nine months into their child’s pregnancy. “He had a horrible feeling.”

It was her last chance to had a chance to see her boyfriend. He took off on Japan Airlines 123, a Boeing 747, in the evening. It was the most significant and extensive passenger plane of the day and had an almost perfect safety record. It began its flight around 6:12 p.m. without a glitch from Tokyo’s Haneda airport but did not journey to Osaka.

What could have been an ordinary 54-minute flight became tragic in just 12 minutes. When the aircraft reached a cruising altitude of 24000 feet, the bulkhead at the back of the 747 broke with the sound of a boom. The bulkhead in the aft is a combination of sheets of aluminum, rivets, and rods to stiffen, as well as steel strips that are used to strengthen the tear straps. It is what separates the cabin for passengers that is pressurized from the tail that is not pressurized by the aircraft. When it was opened, air flowed to the back part of the 747 with such vital force that it cut off the tail cone, which is located at the rear of the fuselage. This is where the avionics of an aircraft’s sensitive system are located. The blast ripped away the power unit that powers the jet’s auxiliary and a large part of its vertical stabilizer fin comprising the rudder. The most important thing is that when the blast ripped off part of the back, it shattered all four hydraulic systems that drive the plane’s ailerons, rudders, and other control surfaces. With them out, the vast jet was like an airplane made of paper during a storm, totally insensitive to pilots’ direction commands.

The flight planned for JAL 123 departing from Tokyo to Osaka leaves about 12 minutes into the flight.

For 32 minutes, the crew fought to ensure the plane remained in the air. The aircraft’s normal flight controls were not functioning. The team had one option: using engines to propel the plane upwards and descend to keep the aircraft on level. However, the damage was too much. “It’s the end!” declared the captain Masami Takahama. Then, Japan Airlines Flight 123 fell into a ridge of Mount Osutaka, located about 65 miles southwest of Tokyo. There were only four survivors. The remaining 520 passengers on board, including three passengers, 12 pilots, and 505 passengers, all died, including Akihisa Yukawa, who was 56. It is still the most fatal single-aircraft crash in the world.

An investigation and rescue operation found bodies and plane parts over the weeks and days following. As the authorities began collecting the fragments, they assembled clues that would help determine what went wrong and the reason. A panel from Japan’s Ministry of Transport concluded in 1987 that Boeing carried out a flawed repair to the bulkhead several years before the plane’s death. In the following years, Boeing substantially changed several critical components of its 747 flagship aircraft. Nearly 40 years later, after the accident, families of those killed are still unsure if anything else could have been done to protect the victims of the tragedy.

But one thing is for sure: “The crew did all they could do,” says Ron Schleede, a member of the team of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who traveled to Japan to help with the investigation of the accident. “But the crash was inevitable.”

Following the accident, the authorities gathered more than 8000 people to help with the rescue, search, and investigation.

The Asahi Shimbun

The scope of the tragedy of JAL 123 was the subject of international scrutiny. The fact that it occurred to an aircraft called a Boeing 747 also attracted more attention. The plane, which was launched only 15 years earlier, was a cult figure around the globe.

This year is the year that marks the end of a period. In January, Boeing provided the 747 that would be its last, which was a freighter for Atlas Air. A mere 50 passenger 747s are still in operation. Over time, the 747’s power was gradually replaced by more efficient twin-engine wide-body aircraft that are fuel efficient. However, the plane dubbed “Queen of the Skies” started a revolution in aviation because it made air travel more convenient and affordable than ever. This is the plane Austin Powers fashioned into his futuristic airborne shaggin’ vehicle. It’s also the plane Leonardo DiCaprio and his dream team flew in Inception. It’s also a plane the U.S. government trusts to pilot the president’s plane, Air Force One. From its first flight, on the 9th of February 1969, the 747 was one of the most spectacular passenger planes for the next several decades.

The idea was conceived sometime earlier; according to industry legend, Juan Trippe, the president of Pan American World Airways, suggested to William Allen that Boeing’s president build a plane that could hold 400 passengers or more, which is more individuals and goods than before. “If you buy it,” Allen is believed to have said, “I’ll build it.” 1966, Trippe agreed to purchase 25 planes for 20 million dollars each.

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