On 12 August 1985, Japan Airlines flight JL123 (registration JA8119) took off from Haneda bound for Itami in Osaka. There was a mixture of passengers- many returning to their ancestral home for the Obon religious festival, businessmen, and families returning from Tokyo Disneyland. The passenger list also included the singer Kyu Sakamoto, the Hanshin Tigers baseball team President and one of those involved in the Glico-Morinaga scandal which had been gripping the nation for 17 months.
An explosion was heard 12 minutes into the flight as it reached about 24,000 feet. A large part of the tail broke off, severing all four hydraulic lines in the process. Many passengers began writing final messages to loved ones. The pilot tried to return to Haneda, but announced that the plane was uncontrollable and was seemingly remained unaware of the full extent of the damage to the plane other than the loss of hydraulics. The plane turned towards the mountainous area of central Japan. It finally crashed at 18:56, 32 minutes after the initial explosion. 524 crew and passengers were on board the Boeing 747. When rescue teams reached the crash site over 15 hours later – having struggled to pinpoint its location for about 10 hours – all but 4 people were dead.
Some reports suggest that a US helicopter was at the crash site only about 2 hours after the plane crashed. This helicopter was apparently directed to the site by a US forces plane which circled the site after finding it only 20 minutes after the plane crashed. Having reached the crash site, a team was apparently being winched down from the helicopter to the wreckage when they were ordered to return to base as the Japanese were going to be on-site soon after. However, this report about the helicopter has never been acknowledged by either the US or Japan at an official level.
The crash site is known officially as Osutaka-no-one (Ridge on Osutaka) or more generally as Osutaka. In fact the ridge is on another mountain. Although within the territory of Ueno village, the crash site is about 20km from the centre of the remote village in Gunma Prefecture. Today there is a memorial garden, Irei-no-sono, in the village as well as memorials at the crash site. Japan Airlines has a Safety Promotion Center which contains information and artefacts relating to the JL123 crash.
In many respects JL123 is Japan’s and the aviation world’s equivalent to the Titanic. It remains the world’s largest single plane crash in terms of human fatalities. Question marks still surround the reason for the crash – the official cause being a faulty repair done by Boeing following an accident in 1978.
For further discussion about the cause of the crash – read What Caused the JL123 Crash?
You can find out more about my research on the JL123 crash here.