August 12, 2020.   Midsummer Morbid.

The Japan Airlines “Tsurumaru” logo is, to me, the most elegant airline logo of all time. Created in 1958 by an American ad firm, it is still used. The emblem features a crane — the symbol of fortune and longevity in Japan — lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of the Rising Sun.

Regrettably, today, marks the 35th anniversary of one of the darkest days in aviation history — the crash of JAL flight 123. On August 12th, 1985, the Boeing 747 crashed into the mountains near Tokyo killing 520 people. It remains the second-deadliest air disaster ever, and the deadliest involving a single aircraft.

I hate bringing this up, but here we are into the dog days of summer, and there remains absolutely nothing positive or promising to write about. We may as well keep the negative energy flowing. A couple of weeks ago we “celebrated” July 17th, possibly the most jinxed day on the aviation calendar. A week later came the 20th anniversary of the Concorde disaster outside Charles de Gaulle airport — one of history’s most misunderstood crashes. And now this.

Twelve minutes after takeoff from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, flight 123’s aft pressure bulkhead burst, causing a rapid decompression. Air rushed up into the into the plane’s tail structure with such force that it ripped off a section of the fin and caused a total loss of hydraulics. Out of control, the plane went down twenty minutes later, slamming into a pair of ridges near Mount Osutaka and disintegrating.

The airplane was a short-range, high-capacity variant of the 747-200 called the SR (short range), built specifically for the Japanese domestic market. This accounts for the incredibly high death toll.

Despite how destructive the impact was, four people, all of them seated in the very rear of the cabin, remarkably survived. The accident occurred at twilight, and search teams weren’t mobilized until the following day; according to the four who were rescued, others had survived the crash as well, only to perish during the night.

Later, when investigators developed film found in cameras belonging to the victims, they discovered photographs taken from inside the cabin. The saddest of these, shot through a starboard window before things went wrong, shows the airplane’s wing approaching the coastline at sunset. In another, taken just minutes later, a flight attendant stands in the aisle cupping an oxygen mask to her face. Also unearthed form the wreckage were several farewell notes scribbled into notebooks and on pieces of paper.

The cause of the accident was traced to a faulty repair made to the aft pressure bulkhead seven years after after an unusually hard landing. In the aftermath, Japan Airlines, long-respected for reliability and safety, fell into a period of disgrace. Yasumoto Takagi, the airlines president at the time, resigned after visiting families of the victims to apologize in person. A JAL maintenance manager, as well as the engineer who had inspected the plane prior to its final flight, committed suicide.

And what a year that was, 1985.

Nowadays, large-scale air disasters have become so rare that even one or two over the course of a year is unusual. Back in ’85, the JAL debacle was one of twenty-seven — that’s correct, twenty-seven — serious accidents to occur that year, in which nearly 2,500 people were killed. Among the others were the Arrow Air crash in Newfoundland that killed 240 American servicemen, and, less than two months before JAL 123, the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic that left 329 dead. It’s hard to fathom, but two of history’s ten worst air disasters happened within fifty days of each other.

That was an unusually bad year for any era, but throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, multiple major accidents were the annual norm. For all of the convulsions the airlines are going through at the moment, perhaps we can savor one positive: they don’t do crashes like they used to.


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