Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on November 22, 2012
Descending through fog on approach into San Francisco, JAL Flight #2 passed through 600 feet on the pressure altimeter. On his Radar Altimeter, Captain Asoh noted that his static pressure altimeter reported 500 feet. Seeing a deviation, he asked his copilot, Joseph Hazen, for regular 100 foot altitude calls as they continued down toward the runway on a standard ILS approach. Yet for some reason, the copilot did not call the 400 foot mark and Captain Asoh asked again. Momentarily confused, the copilot reported instead an altimeter setting of 30.31″. Seconds later, the Minimum Descent Altitude indicator light (MDI) flashed on — Captain Asoh had set it at 211 feet. A quick glance showed the altimeter at 300 feet and the copilot called, “Breaking out of the overcast. I cannot see the runway light….”
The runway lights of San Francisco should have been directly ahead. Instead, all they saw was water. Instantly, the two pilots realized that they were well below 200 feet. The copilot yelled, “We are too low — pull up, pull up!” He didn’t need to say it as Captain Asoh had already rammed the throttles forward. Pulling back on the control column, he pitched the nose upward and hoped — he knew, however, that it was too late. There was a sudden drag as the main landing gear struck the water. A huge splash exploded skyward as the airplane twisted 65 degrees to the left. Captain Asoh chopped the power to try and avoid flipping over forward — but then the nose wheel hit and dug in….
Anatomy of an Accident
The flight of Japan Air Lines Flight #2 (JAL 2), a DC-8 nicknamed “Shiga”, from Tokyo to San Francisco had been a normal transpacific crossing. As the plane descended toward San Francisco, Captain Kohei Asoh was advised of fog with a reported ceiling of 300 feet. Landings in fog were fairly routine, so he had elected for an ILS approach, which gave him 200 foot minimums. Likewise, he undertook an autopilot coupled approach and, since he had seen altimeter deviations of nearly 120 feet on his side of the panel when compared with the copilot’s gauges, as a cross check, he used the Radar Altimeter for precise altitude information. All of these steps were reasonable — but they still didn’t prevent an accident.
So just why did Captain Kohei Asoh fly a “perfectly good airplane” into the water that day, today in aviation history on November 22, 1968? Captain Asoh had nearly 10,000 hours of flight time and was one of the senior pilots at Japan Air Lines. He had worked with the airline for 15 years — and previously, he had been a military flight instructor during World War II, training Japanese pilots. For this route — Tokyo to San Francisco — he flew JAL’s newest aircraft, the four-engine Douglas DC-8, a type in which he had more than 1,000 hours of total time. His copilot, Joseph Hazen, was an American and highly experienced too. He was a former Air America aviator and prior USMC pilot. The flight engineer was experienced as well, and so was the navigator. The crew was well-rested and everything was fine. In the back, there were 96 passengers plus an additional 7 flight attendants — 11 of the passengers were infants.
The Crash and Aftermath
Incredibly, the plane did not flip over. An eye-witness reported, “I heard the plane very low, coming in. I looked up and there it was, splashing down, just beautifully.” In fact, the water landing was perfect — somehow no violent stop or rending of the wings and fuselage took place. Instead, the plane simply splashed down to a full stop and sank into the water. By equally lucky chance, JAL Flight #2 had landed in a shallow area of the San Francisco Bay, just 10 to 12 feet deep. This allowed the wheels to touch the bottom of the Bay and left the top half of the airplane high and dry.
In the cockpit, the copilot switched off critical avionics as the Flight Engineer shut off fuel flows and closed valves to prevent a fuel leak, as if everything was perfectly practiced. The captain felt the wheels touch bottom and knew that the plane was stable. He reached up an selected the cabin intercom to advise the cabin of what had happened. Many of the passengers, those without window seats, didn’t even know that the plane was in the water. Most of the carry-on baggage under the seats was still in place, though some bags had slipped forward as much as two rows of seats. The most scary thing at the time of impact was that some overhead bin covers had torn free and flown through the passenger compartment. Even there, nobody was hit.
For five minutes the cabin crew discussed what to do as everyone waited patiently sitting at their seats. The passengers could hear the gentle lapping of the waves against the sides of the plane. Not even their feet were wet as everyone was sitting above the water line. Then Captain Asoh spotted jet fuel leaking from the wing tanks. Fearing a fire, he issued the order to evacuate the plane onto rafts. With orderly precision and little panic, the passengers stood up, donned life jackets, and walked to the cabin doors. The flight attendants opened the doors and inflated the rafts. One by one, they assisted passengers out. Once each raft was full, they pushed off from the plane and rowed toward shore. Incredibly, nobody was injured, not even slightly. With everyone aboard the rafts, the purser made a final cabin check. Finding nobody left behind, he boarded the last raft and they too pushed off toward shore.
As the passengers rowed in, a tiny flat-bottomed fishing boat motored up. The fisherman asked if he could assist by towing the rafts. Seeing everyone in good condition, he opened his cooler and tossed all his cans of beer to the passengers, who gladly accepted. As it turned out, his fishing boat’s engine wasn’t powerful enough to tow even a single raft. Therefore, the passengers and crew made do with a 30 minute row to shore. When they stepped onto the beach, most didn’t even get their ankles wet. It was a weird scene, to say the least, as the passengers looked back at the plane sitting above water as if parked in the Bay a few hundred yards off shore.
Just 55 hours later, the plane was lifted onto a barge by a set of maritime cranes. It was taken ashore then for a full evaluation. The undamaged flight recorders revealed that everything had worked well, except the reported altimeter issues — yet those were not to blame for what happened. The accident investigators uncovered just one explanation. Put simply, by selecting an autopilot coupled ILS approach, Captain Asoh and his copilot, Joseph Hazen, simply ignored their actual position. They flew the plane without any reference to the glide slope indicator in the ILS window at all.
In other words, for the entire approach, they had been below the glide slope, on a perfect descent path to land two and a half miles short of the runway. Somehow both pilots trusted the autopilot to recognize and fly the glide slope itsef — it did not. The autopilot had kept the plane right on the localizer, however, so they landed in perfect alignment with the runway though it just happened to be in the Bay. Left unsaid in the final NTSB report was that the air traffic controllers at San Francisco, who had altitude read-outs from the plane’s transponder signals, did not issue any warnings, nor did they recognize the problem either. It was a comedy of small errors that added up to a big mistake.
The Asoh Defense
Months later, Captain Asoh was called to testify at the National Transportation Safety Board hearing. There were many things he could have said. He could have cited the distraction caused by the disagreement between altimeter readings. He could have blamed his copilot for not calling the altitudes properly as requested. He could have pointed out that ATC hadn’t reported he was low. He could have claimed that the coupled approach was misleading since it wasn’t clear that the autopilot didn’t fly the altitude as well as the heading. He could have said many things. Instead, he did not.
Captain Asoh recognized that it all came down to him. As the true and honorable man and as captain of the aircraft, he accepted full and complete responsibility. That the autopilot would not fly the glide slope automatically was something that he should have known. Somehow, he had ignored the glide slope indication in the ILS window, which showed him to be well below the approach path the entire time. Whether the other crew members did or did not was of no concern to him — he had made the mistake and he had the honesty to accept that.
Therefore, Captain Asoh looked directly at the NTSB board and uttered what has since become known in legal circles as the Asoh Defense — “As you Americans say, I fucked up.” With that, the case was essentially closed. Cursory interviews with the rest of the crew followed. The final recommendations required additional training for Japan Air Lines pilots on coupled approach procedures. The plane was hosed down and what little damage done was fully repaired — it returned to service with JAL and flew for years afterward.
As for Captain Asoh, he was demoted by JAL to the role of copilot and reassigned to fly cargo operations for the rest of his career. Yet above all, he preserved his honor and integrity to the end.
Did you know that a Douglas DC-8 airliner once flew faster than the speed of sound? On August 23, 1961, in a USAF test that involved the Douglas Aircraft Company, a DC-8 was flown faster than the speed of sound. Accompanied by two chase planes — an F-100 photo aircraft and an F-104 pacer plane. he DC was taken to an indicated altitude of 50,029 feet. At near maximum power (97% N2), the nose was pitched downward steeply. As the plane descended past 40,350 feet of altitude in the hands of test pilots William M. Magruder and Paul H. Patten, it achieved Mach 1.012, logging a true airspeed of 660.6 mph.
The recovery was supposed to have begun at 42,000 feet, however, the application of up elevator revealed that a Mach shock wave was blocking control authority. This was a bit unexpected and very dangerous. As the plane passed through 39,000 feet, the pilots attempted to pull-out by using just the elevator trim tabs, a technique developed during WWII when fighter pilots faced “compressibility”. At 35,000 feet, the nose raised somewhat and the pilots could feel a buffeting as the plane decelerated. A severe rudder pedal buzzing was felt through their feet — possibly this indicated harmonic flutter, which could well have destroyed the plane. Finally, before reaching 30,000 feet, the plane recovered from its dive. The pilots returned for a normal landing. After the flight, no damage was found despite an extensive inspection.
Has any other airliner ever exceeded Mach 1.0 (other than the SSTs, such as the Concorde, etc.)?