NAGOYA – A Japan Airlines pilot was found not guilty Friday of professional negligence resulting in the eventual death of a cabin attendant and injuries to 13 others aboard a 1997 flight that encountered turbulence.
Ruling on an unprecedented criminal trial targeting a commercial pilot in Japan in connection with an in-flight accident, the Nagoya District Court acquitted 54-year-old Koichi Takamoto, captain of Flight 706 from Hong Kong to Nagoya on June 8, 1997. The MD-11 had 179 passengers and crew members on board.
Presiding Judge Yoji Ishiyama blamed the violent jarring of the aircraft near Nagoya on the captain’s abrupt movement of the flight controls but ruled that he could not have foreseen the injuries sustained by some of those on board and that there was no proof of any criminal act on his part.
Prosecutors had demanded a prison sentence of 18 months and are expected to appeal.
Takamoto told a news conference that while he was happy at his acquittal, he felt a “strong sense of discomfort” that the court had attributed the violent movement of the aircraft to his operational control.
“It is unacceptable,” Takamoto repeatedly said.
He stood motionless as he listened to the ruling, while some of his JAL colleagues cheered in the gallery.
One subject of controversy during the trial was the prosecutors’ use as evidence of an investigative report on the accident compiled by the transport ministry’s accident investigation committee.
The report was designed to shed light on the cause of the accident — not for a criminal investigation.
The presiding judge ruled that use of the report as evidence was valid because it carried “opinions by committee members who have expert knowledge and can make fair judgments.”
It was the first time an aircraft accident report had been accepted as evidence in a criminal trial. Takamoto’s defense lawyers, as well as domestic and overseas pilots’ associations, condemned its use as a violation of an international civil aviation treaty.
Prosecutors charged that Takamoto had pulled the flight controls to reduce speed amid the turbulence without first disengaging the autopilot — an act they said was prohibited by the plane’s operating manual. This resulted in the nose moving sharply up and down repeatedly, causing injuries to 14 people.
One of those hurt died months later.
Takamoto denied any negligence on his part, saying he had followed regulations in piloting the MD-11 and had done his best as a captain.
The flight experienced turbulence upon its descent to Nagoya airport while it was flying over the Shima Peninsula in Mie Prefecture and its airspeed increased rapidly.
Prosecutors claimed Takamoto was aware of the special characteristics of the MD-11 — that operating the controls manually without first disengaging the autopilot would make the plane unstable.
As a result of the violent jarring, flight attendant Atsuko Taniguchi was thrown to the floor and then to the ceiling, sustaining head injuries. She died about 20 months later at age 34.
Six passengers and seven other crew members were injured.
Takamoto’s lawyers had submitted to the court a report compiled by the head of JAL’s flight engineering section stating that temporary malfunctioning of the aircraft’s computer and air turbulence were to blame for the accident, not negligence.
The defense also said that the 14 who were hurt had failed to fasten their seat belts as instructed by the pilot at the time of the accident.
Both the Air Line Pilots’ Association of Japan and the International Federation of Air Line Pilot’s Associations have also protested the use of the accident report, fearing it could prevent crew members from telling the truth in future cases for fear of criminal prosecution. It could thus hinder efforts to improve aviation safety and prevent a similar accident, they have said.
The Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention, has been ratified by Japan. It states in Annex 13 that the sole purpose of investigations into aircraft accidents and subsequent reports is to prevent future accidents, and not to apportion blame or liability.
Judge Ishiyama ruled, however, that use of an investigation report as evidence in court is acceptable as long as the report has been made public.
In the news conference after the ruling, Takamoto argued that if investigation reports are to be used in a criminal trial, pilots may hesitate to cooperate with probes into airplane accidents.
Takamoto also claimed that the prosecution “failed to probe the cause of the accident on their own and indicted me solely on the basis of the investigation report” by the transport ministry.
The Air Line Pilots’ Association of Japan said the acquittal was only natural and noted “the accident investigation commission should reinvestigate the incident, as it is clear the report’s speculation on the causes were untrue.”
The report suggests that the pilot’s actions led to the jarring of the plane, but also says the unique characteristics of the MD-11 and changes in air currents were also factors.