London – On Aug.12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 took off from Haneda Airport in Tokyo, bound for Osaka International Airport. Onboard were a mix of passengers — businessmen, families returning from Tokyo Disneyland and travelers visiting relatives for the Bon festival period.
Twelve minutes into the flight, as the plane reached 7,300 meters (24,000 feet), there was an explosion. A large part of the tail had broken off, severing all four hydraulic lines — which would have affected the plane’s capacity to steer.
Captain Masami Takahama, an experienced pilot, attempted to fly the increasingly uncontrollable aircraft back to Haneda, but to no avail. The plane crashed into Osutaka Ridge in southern Gunma Prefecture, killing 520 of the 524 onboard.
A government investigation body concluded in 1987 that the accident was caused by improper repairs conducted by Boeing Co., the maker of the aircraft, on the pressure bulkhead, which JAL did not detect in its maintenance checks.
In a nation that has endured many disasters, the crash of JAL 123 has left an indelible mark. Professor Christopher Hood of Cardiff University, who has done extensive research on the JAL 123 crash and also lectures on symbolism and identity in Japan, explains its impact.
“This crash is Japan’s and the aviation world’s Titanic; the plane carried a cross-section of the Japanese population. … Many people can place where they were on Aug. 12, 1985.”
Susanne Bayly-Yukawa was in her Tokyo apartment with her four-year-old daughter Cassie, and eight months pregnant with her second daughter, Diana. Her partner and father to her children, Akihisa Yukawa, had earlier left for a business trip to Osaka.
Suddenly, she heard her daughter’s call; Cassie’s TV children’s channel was running breaking news. In her book, “Leading up to the Day,” she wrote about what happened next.
“I sat transfixed watching the screen, clinging to the hope that Aki was not on that plane; there were, after all, many flights in one day from Tokyo to Osaka … Moments later there was a dramatic announcement: the passenger list had already been released and was appearing on the television screen.
“Finally, the very last page appeared … a few names down from the top of the list I became paralyzed, numb with shock: Yukawa Akihisa 56.”
Now, after more than three decades, she has been asked to join a new campaign for full information disclosure on the JAL 123 crash. The campaign team consists of scientists, members from among the bereaved and independent experts, including author Toko Aoyama, attorney-at-law Hiroshi Miyake and leading economist Takuro Morinaga.
Besides disclosure of information, the campaign is also demanding a reopening of the investigation and the salvaging of the Boeing 747’s tail fin, which still lies in Sagami Bay where it fell. There are questions Bayly-Yukawa wants answered.
“Why were the U.S. rescue team turned away when several lives could have been saved? Why were countless eye-witness reports left out? Why were the autopsy reports unreliable?” she asks, noting that every victim was given the same time and cause of death. “Why did the Japanese government repeatedly refuse to salvage the tail fin wreckage on the Sagami seabed?”
According to David Gleave, an independent aviation safety investigator, Japan has an international obligation to lift the tail fin from the seabed. “Each nation will be responsible for lifting wreckage within its territorial quarters,” he says, referring to Annex 13 penned by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Gleave adds that other elements are also missing from the original investigation.
“Parts of the transcripts are missing … from the ground telephone communications, from the air traffic control communications. … Some relatives are looking for cockpit VR (voice recorder) data — the box is in the museum, but the data is missing.”
The campaign says these missing transcripts could help solve inconsistencies in the official investigation, but they have proved elusive, as Bayly-Yukawa explains.
“There have been repeated requests to obtain the full transcript of the voice recorder and flight data. In September 2019, JAL told me they didn’t have it. In June 2020, the JTSB (Japan Transport Safety Board) told me they gave it back to JAL and confirmed this to the media … And yet the government already announced that all data was transferred to disc for safekeeping.”
Hood is adamant about the need to reopen the investigation. One of his main sticking points with the original inquiry involves the plane’s pressure relief door.
“The main job of the pressure relief door is that if the bulkhead breaks, it is meant to pop open. In the official crash report, the pressure relief door was found at the crash site. The conclusion that it worked as it was supposed to doesn’t add up.”
He also doubts that the pilots were suffering from hypoxia, as the crash report concludes.
“One of the only remaining body parts of the pilot found were his teeth, which were ground down by level of force … he wouldn’t have ground down his teeth if suffering from hypoxia.”
And he condemns the response of the Self-Defense Forces during that first night on the mountains.
“What is the SDF’s primary role? This is an organization whose job it is to defend Japan. A plane goes down in Japan in the Cold War. … How can they justify their existence when no one is parachuted down? Why did they wait until 5:46 a.m.?” The plan had crashed almost 11 hours earlier.
And then, of course, there is the government – of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, in power in 1985, and subsequent administrations — that failed to ease the feelings of bereaved families or answer the questions posed by aviation experts.
Bayly-Yukawa describes the hope the new campaign offers.
“After the crash … my identity was torn away,” she said. “This would have broken Aki’s heart, so I was fighting to be the person he loved. That was my mission, until 2019.”
After she was approached to join the new campaign, that changed. “Until then I was the last person to believe or even consider there was another cause of the crash,” she explained. “However, presented with the facts from experts, I became convinced the truth had been hidden.”
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