NEW YORK - The U.S. government divulged to an influential American newspaper crucial information on improper repair work on a plane carried out by Boeing Co., suggesting it was the presumable cause of the 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines jet, after sensing reluctance by Japanese authorities to release the data, former U.S. officials have told Kyodo News.
Japanese aviation authorities were thought to be hesitant about disclosing the information on the botched repair because that could impact law-enforcement investigations conducted separately to see if there was any negligence in Boeing’s servicing the plane or in the subsequent inspections done by Japan Airlines or the Transport Ministry.
On Aug. 12, 30 years will have passed since Flight 123, a packed jumbo jet bound for Osaka, crashed into a mountain in Gunma Prefecture about 40 minutes after taking off from Tokyo, killing 520 passengers and crew members. Four female passengers miraculously survived.
The crash — which remains the worst single-plane disaster in aviation history — jolted Japan. The intense interest it generated led to a range of speculation, prompting some people to come up with a theory that there was some conspiracy behind it.
Japan’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Commission (AAIC) concluded in a final report published two years later that the accident was caused by the plane’s rear bulkhead being torn by a rapid influx of decompressed air, causing the vertical fin to explode and disabling all hydraulic systems. The bulkhead, which looks like an umbrella canopy, separates the highly pressurized passenger cabin from the unpressurized tail section.
While investigators were immediately dispatched to Japan from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the maker of the 747-100SR aircraft, Japanese experts were speculating within days of the crash that the bulkhead could be a potential source of trouble, knowing the plane had a history of damage to its tail section.
Their speculation, however, was not confirmed until a U.S. investigative team found a crack in the bulkhead caused by unconventional fatigue attributed to an error in the repair procedure undertaken by Boeing.
The U.S. team shared the information with AAIC, now the Japan Transport Safety Board, 10 days after the tragedy, expecting AAIC to release the information promptly, which the Japanese authority failed to do.
“I told Hiroshi Fujiwara what the problem was,” said Ronald Schleede, a former official with the NTSB’s Bureau of Accident Investigation and a leading investigator on the JAL crash, referring to an AAIC official. “You need to put this information out to news media because we are prohibited from giving our information on another country’s investigation.”
Releasing this information was critical for the United States because it would reveal to the world that the devastating crash was attributable to the peculiar cause of a repair error in a single aircraft, giving safety assurances for the other 600 747s then flying around the world.
In an interview with Kyodo News at his home near Washington D.C., Schleede also said: “I was told by Jim Burnett to tell a New York Times aviation reporter the facts, including the improper repair. The reporter called Boeing and they confirmed the facts.”
Burnett, who was NTSB chairman at that time, and The New York Times reporter has since passed away.
Asked about the news report, John Purvis, who was then Boeing’s chief of air safety and a key member of the U.S. investigation team, said: “Officially, FAA or the NTSB does not talk to the press. They are very sensitive to that, but unofficially, NTSB talks to the press all the time.”
In an interview at his Seattle home, Purvis assumed the report was based on a U.S. government leak.
“Of course,” he said when asked if somebody in the government gave away the information. “But I don’t know who did.”
The New York Times published the report on Sept. 6, three weeks after the disaster, under the headline “Clues Are Found In Japan Air Crash,” revealing for the first time the critical finding about an improper repair seven years earlier that led to the bulkhead being destroyed. Boeing, then based in Seattle, was compelled to acknowledge its error in handling the repair. NTSB was not mentioned by name in the report.
The repair instruction was simple. A splice plate needed to be inserted into a joint section of the upper and lower domes of the bulkhead. They all needed to be riveted. But for some reason, the service team used a splice plate that was slimmer than designated, covering the gap with a separate filler, which led to a lack of structural integrity.
This repair was needed because the plane’s tail section hit a runway at Osaka airport in 1978. A 40-member team undertook the repair work.
Gunma Prefectural Police eventually charged 20 people, including four Boeing employees, with negligence. But prosecutors declined to seek indictments after Boeing refused to cooperate. In the United States, aviation probes focus on causes and it is not uncommon that no charges are filed unless some intentional acts are committed.
In line with the Convention on International Civil Aviation, Japan led the investigation into the JAL crash and AAIC spent 20 months producing a 600-page report, which received acclaim from overseas for being elaborate and accurate.
Correction: The series of Boeing 747 was corrected to 747-100SR.