AOMORI – A fatal 1997 accident involving a United Airlines flight from Tokyo to Hawaii was probably caused by a type of turbulence that is hard to anticipate and the crew’s failure to issue safety instructions in Japanese, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said.
Advice from the crew after takeoff to keep seat belts fastened was not given in Japanese even though most of the passengers were Japanese, resulting in more extensive damage than there would have been otherwise, the NTSB said in a recent report.
Flight 826, carrying 374 passengers and 19 crew members, left Narita airport at 9:05 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1997, bound for Honolulu.
About an hour and 40 minutes later, the plane encountered minor turbulence over the Pacific, followed one to two minutes later by so-called clear air turbulence, according to the NTSB.
Passengers and crew members who were not wearing seat belts were tossed to the ceiling with a force 1.8 times stronger than gravity and dropped down six seconds later. One Japanese passenger was killed and about 170 people were injured, 18 of them seriously.
The NTSB found that after takeoff, the captain, speaking in English, advised passengers to keep their seat belts fastened after switching off the seat belt sign.
However, a flight attendant in charge of onboard Japanese service did not mention the seat belt advice when she translated the captain’s message. She later told NTSB investigators that she thought the captain’s message was longer than usual and a full translation would cause fear among the passengers.
The NTSB said the captain turned the seat belt sign on before the turbulence and told all on board to buckle up, in English and in Japanese.
That finding, however, has been contested by some passengers.
The NTSB said 236 of the 310 Japanese passengers who responded to an NTSB inquiry said the seat belt sign was not on at the time of the accident, and 279 maintained there was no announcement.
Machie Taira, the mother of Konomi Kataura, the passenger who died in the accident, said, “It’s the company’s responsibility if the announcement was not properly made.”
The UAL office in Japan said flight attendants are trained to translate entire announcements by captains.
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