Plane Crash Recreated: JAL123/Japan

Further to my post about the TV series “Plane Crash Recreated” being shown on PBS America in the UK, this post covers one of the episodes – JAL123/Japan.

There are two reasons for doing a separate post on this episode (my comments on the other episodes are in the original post). First, I have been conducting research about the JL123 crash since 2007. Second, I appear in the episode.

The first thing to note about the episode is that while the other 9 use the two letter IATA code, only this episode uses the 3 letter ICAO code so it is referred to as JAL123 instead of JL123. According to the series director, Daniel Sharp, this was due to the number of people during the programme who referred to the flight as ‘JAL123’. Having watched the programme, I’m not sure how much this is true of the bits that were included in the final version (there were a few odd ways of referring to the flight from my perspective). Anyway, I will continue to use JL123.

The episode begins by speaking about how a key component of the cause of the crash was explosive decompression. As noted in my post on the series, this is not a series which aims to hide the cause and build up to revealing it late on. However, in this episode, there is a twist at the end, which I was very pleased to see included. Yet, until then, we are presented with comments about how there would have been a hurricane-like wind in the cabin as the air rushed out of the plane. In fact, there is no evidence that this happened and the comments given by the survivors and on notes written by some passengers (given how much interest there is in these notes (isho) it is surprising that no mention of them was included in the programme) definitely undermine not only the idea of air rushing out but the ‘probable cause’ being linked to rapid decompression.

The episode also discusses – as per the official report – that the cockpit crew may have been suffering from hypoxia as the plane remained at such a high altitude for a long time and they did not put on oxygen masks (I don’t think this last point was made in the episode, although it would have been recorded in the interview with me). The length of time that was spent at high altitude means that not only would have the cockpit crew have been suffering from hypoxia, but, as is pointed out in the episode, they may have even expected to have died without sufficient oxygen. The following figure is taken from my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash and shows just how long the plane remained above both the safe altitude (the dark and light grey areas) and an altitude where there would not expect to be sufficient oxygen (the dark grey area).

This series is primarily concerned with seeing whether some pilots can land a plane more safely than the actual flight. There are always going to be issues with this. Previous episodes have already noted (explicitly in one case and hinted at in others) that the pilots actually know more about what they are about to experience and try to deal with than the premise suggests. And while this episode notes that they could not recreate any possible issues of hypoxia the actual JL123 crew may have faced, perhaps more could have been done to point out that times when ‘a lot of anticipation is needed’ would not map with the concentration challenges that would be happening had the crew being suffering from hypoxia. Furthermore, this is such a famous crash, the idea that any of the pilots wouldn’t have done some simulator training in the past that used lessons learnt from it (even if they’d not done a recreation of JL123 before) seems unlikely. It is also unlikely that had any water landing been attempted that there would have been no waves on the Pacific (a relatively flat sea is shown) – these waves would undoubtedly reduced any chances of such a landing being successful.

Despite the seemingly negative comments in the previous paragraph, the ultimate conclusion by one of the simulator pilots that this plane was ‘beyond anybody’s ability to save’ was, in my view, the appropriate way to bring that section of the programme to an end.

As noted above, there are some serious question marks over the official report and its conclusion about the ‘probable cause’ and it was very good to see that the episode concluding with both myself and Susanne Bayly-Yukawa making points relating to the need for further research about what really happened.

A fraction of the reasons for why an investigation is needed have been made. I hope that others will help to ensure that these investigations will happen. At least, at last, we are starting to see documentaries in the English-speaking world aligning more with what has been in Japanese-language documentaries and books for over 30 years now.

This is not the first documentary that I have been involved in about the JL123 crash (I was in an episode of Aircrash Confidential, and another documentary that didn’t get aired). The experience of this one was perhaps the most interesting as the filming happened during COVID in December 2020. It may not be totally clear from the shots of me in the programme, but I was actually sat with the simulator as my backdrop. As usual with any interview far more was recorded than appeared in the final version (which is why I am glad that they did at least keep some of the parts that related to the question marks over the official report). Unusually, I got to see a relatively early draft of the programme so was able to point out a couple of things that needed correcting – which I was happy to see happened. I am aware that the team making the episode had hoped to get to Japan to interview relevant people there, but COVID restrictions prevented that from happening which is a shame.

One thing that is a shame at the moment is that perhaps not many people will probably be able to see the episode. I’m finding that many aren’t aware of PBS America (where it’s being shown in the UK) and I don’t know how it will be accessed in the future (or how often it will be repeated on PBS America). Hopefully the concept proves popular enough that it leads to a second series – certainly the professionalism of the team suggests to me that they deserve this – and perhaps this will lead to greater exposure. It will probably never become as iconic as Air Crash Investigation (aka Mayday) which now has 22 seasons (I was invited to be in the second programme that covered JL123, but unfortunately I was away when the recording was due to happen and it is perhaps partly due to this that the episode takes the more conventional (and likely inaccurate) view about the rapid depressurisation), but I hope Plane Crash Recreated does go on.

For further discussion about the cause of the crash – read What Caused the JL123 Crash?

If you would like to know more about JL123 here is a selection of relevant links:

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