The high number of runway mishaps and near mises that have occurred at Kansai and Chibu and other airports in Japan have been blamed on a shortage of air traffic controllers and a lack of communication between pilots and air traffic controllers. The mistakes at Kansai occurred after the number of air traffic controllers had been sharply cut back there.

Airlines reported 1,233 bird strikes in 2006, up from 253 in 2000. Although the strike rarely result in crashes they do cause expensive structural and technical problems and may produce a crashes. Most of the strikes occurred at Haneda Airport (118) in Tokyo and Kobe Airport (94). Ducks, and little terns and other birds nest and take up residence in the grassy areas that surround airports. Pigeons and gulls roost in airport facilities. Patrols scare them off with live and blank gunshots.

Twenty-five people who arrived at Narita died from "economy-class syndrome" between 1992 and 2000.

Second Worst Air Disaster Ever

The second deadliest air disaster ever and the worst disaster involving a single plane occurred on August 12, 1985, when a Japan Air Lines 747 crashed into 1600-meter-high Mt. Osutaka Mountain in Uenomura, Gunma Prefecture in Japan, killing 520 people. Four people survived. One went on to be a stewardess. The deadliest crash ever was on March 27 1977 when two Boeing 747s collided on the ground on the Canary Island of Tenerife, killing 582 people.

The JAL crash was the world’s worst single-aircraft accident in terms of number of victims. The jumbo jet took off from Haneda airport and was bound for Osaka, filled with salarymen returning home for the weekends, and holidaymakers and people heading to their hometowns for the Bon holidays.

The JAL 747 that crashed in Gunma developed problems in the air and pilots wrestled with the craft for more than 30 minutes before the plane gradually broke up in the sky before slamming to the ground. It took rescuers 10 hours to reach the crash site. An explanation as what happened has never been offered. A Japanese government investigation concluded the accident was caused by a fracture in the plane’s rear pressure bulkhead due to improper repairs carried out by Boeing.

There is some debate as to whether the plane flipped before or after it crashed. Investigators blamed the crash on a failure of the pressure bulkhead. There was an attempt to sue Boeing for professional negligence but difference between the American and Japanese legal system kept the case from getting very far.

Since then not one major Japanese carrier has experienced a fatal accident

Other Air Accidents and Mishaps in Japan

A crash over Shizukuishi caused by a mid-air collision in July 1971 killed 162 people. On April 26, 1994, 264 died when a China Airline Airbus A300 crashed at Nagoya Airport. In 1996 a Garuda plane crashed in Fukuoka (See Below).

In 1998, one person was killed and several people were injured in a bout of severe turbulence over the Pacific on a United flight between Tokyo and Honolulu. The flight never made it to Honolulu. It turned around and returned to Japan. In 1997, a flight attendant was killed during turbulence during a landing at Nagoya Airport. The flight attendant was thrown against the ceiling and the floor of the cabin and died 30 months later for head injuries. A few years earlier 11 passengers were hurt by turbulence on a JAL flight between Sendai and Honolulu.

On February 2, 2001 there was a near collision between JAL flights. The planes came so close that their sudden evasive maneuvers left 42 people injured. The near collision was blamed on an air traffic controller who mixed up the flight numbers. In March 2004, 37 people were injured, four seriously, when a Taiwanese Airbus A330-200 airliner hit severe turbulence as it was approaching Narita airport outside Tokyo.

The fatal crash of a FedEx cargo jet at Narita Airport in March 2009 during heavy winds was blamed on pilot error. An investigation found that control stick was tilted too much and the plane — an MD-11 jet — touched too hard then bounced 170s meters and touched down hard, with its nose dipped excessively and bounced again, reaching a height of five meters and traveling 300 meters in the air before touching down hard again, causing the left wing to snap off and the plane flip on it back. It was originally thought wind sheer might have been responsible, but that was not the case. Two U.S. pilots were killed. It was the first fatal accidents at Narita since it opened in 1979. The runway where the accident happened was closed for 26 hours, creating incentives to get the airport’s other runways ready.

In October 2010, an ANA jetliner came within seconds of crashing into a mountain in Hokkaido and a disaster was only averted because the pilot reacted immediately when an alarm sounded. According to the Japan Transport Safety Board, ANA Flight 325 — a Boeing 737 with 57 passengers and crew on board — came within 220 meters of striking 2,197-meter-high Mt. Pippu. The plane was preparing to land in Asahikakwa and had been told by an air tarffic controller to drop to an altitude of about 1,5000 meters in an area where planes are no supposed to fly below about 1,500 meters. The ground-proximity system issued three separate alarms, including one that said “Terrain-Pull Up,” which means that if the plane stays on its current course it will hit a land mass in 20 or 30 seconds.

In May 2009, four people were injured on an Air Do flight between Tokyo and Sapporo that experienced strong turbulence. In February 2011, a JAL flight shaken by turbulence 300 kilometers west of Honolulu resulted in one passenger and one crew member, each sustaining broken bones.

In February 2009, a Northwest Airlines 747-400 hit turbulence while circling Narita Airport in preparation to land. Forty-three people were injured, including one person with a broken neck. The seat belt sign was on as the plane suddenly descended and ascended with many of the injured hitting their heads on the ceiling of the plane, nearly all of them in the back of the plane. The airlines radiod Narita Airports, saying some passengers were injured but was criticized for not explaining that several dozen were hurt.

In the summer of 2010 there were two serious helicopter accidents. In July five of seven people aboard a rescue helicopter, called in to rescue an injured 55-year-old female climber, died when their helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain in Saitama Prefecture. In August, five people in a coast guard helicopter were killed when it crashed into a power line stretching between two small island in the Inland Sea off Kagawa Prefecture.

Airplane Explosion in Okinawa

In August 2007, a Taiwanese Air China Boeing 737-800 caught fire and exploded after landing in Okinawa. All 165 people aboard the plane were able to escape. Passengers slid down escape chutes and literally ran for their lives while the plane was smoking, moments before it exploded. A video showed the pilots leaping from a cockpit window seconds after the first explosion.

Most of the passengers were Taiwanese on a beach holiday in Okinawa. The flight landed normally. An Air China spokesman said, “Everything was working according to normal procedure. There was nothing wrong during the flight.”

As the plane parked, passengers noticed smoking from the left engine and then the right one. Fires began when the left engine exploded about a minute after it entered it parking spot. One Taiwanese passenger told the Washington Post, “The passenger saw the smoke first, and they began to yell and demand that doors be opened,” Another said, “When the smoke started, people were just pushing and shoving each other, It was total chaos.” Another said “I ran so hard my sock tore...I think I got my life back.” A fireman who entered the plane to fight the fire told the Daily Yomiuri, “It’s almost a miracle that no one way injured.”

One Japanese passenger told the Daily Yomiuri, “the seat belt sign was turned off and I was taking down my baggage when I noticed smoke coming from somewhere behind the wing...An explosion rang out a few minutes after we slid down the slide. My wife began crying with fear.”

It was the forth major accident for an Air China plane in the previous 13 years. Afterwards China Airlines was hit by a number of cancellations and the Japanese government said it would step up inspections of foreign airlines that fly to Japan. All the luggage on the plane was incinerated. Air China gave passengers about $300 to buy clothes and other necessities.

Despite efforts by firefighters to put it out the fire burned for more than 30 minutes. More than 4,700 liters of fuel was on the plane at the time of the fire. Investigators found that a bolt had pieced the airplane’s fuel tank. The hole was several centimeters long. The bolt came from the edge of the right wing and probably came lose during landing. Investigators said a maintenance error — failing to install washers on the bolt — likely led to the problem.

Safety Problems with JAL

In 2005 and 2006, JAL was ordered twice by the Japanese government to improve its safety. The orders came in response to a number of incidents that included taking off and landing without permission, and parts and fragments falling from engines and aircraft. After the reports so many passengers switched to ANA that JAL mulled over raising ticket fares to compensate for the losses.

Between January and August of 2005 there were 14 incidents related to safety lapses. In January a JAL pilot was involved in a near miss at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido after a pilot taxied his plane onto a runway with receiving permission from the control tower. In March a plane scraped its tail on the runway as it landed ay Fukushima Airport. In May a flight from Narita to Sao Paulo suddenly lost pressure and had to make an emergency landing.

In June 2005, three passengers were injured on a JAL flight when two tires came off during landing at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. A passenger told the Daily Yomirui, “Righter after we landed the plane lurched to the right and then the left. The impact was so strong that I’m sure I would have been thrown from my seat had I not been wearing my seatbelt.”

In August 2005, a panel from a JAL Boeing 777 fell off during landing. A Korean Air jet that landed afterwards blew a tire. No one was injured. The same month an engine burst into flames on a JAL DC-10 heading from Fukuoka to Honolulu shortly after take off. Passengers heard a loud bang. Metal fragments fell to the ground and injured five people. The fire was caught on video.

Pilot error not air turbulence was blamed for a rough ride on JAL flight between Tokyo and Fukuoka that injured 33 people in October 2002. Passengers were tossed about the cabin because of the “pilot aggressively handling the control stick after disengaging the autopilot, thereby causing the aircraft to shake violently.” Some passengers hit their head on the cabin roof. Four were seriously hurt. In June 1997, a JAL MD-11 suddenly jerked violently due to pilot error, resulting in injuries to 14 people.

Recent Safety Problems with JAL

JAL has also been criticized for flight and maintenance problems. In March 2006, it was reprimanded for mishaps related to its reverse thrusters. In one case the thrusters failed to engage because maintenance workers forgot to take out the safety catches. An inspection of a maintenance facility found workers doing shoddy work t meet deadlines. An inspection of planes found one plane that was allowed to fly even though it had cracks in its landing gear.

In a February 2008, a JAL 747 with 446 people aboard began taking off while another plane was on the runway at New Chitose airport in Hokkaido. The 747 was accelerating when an air controller told the pilot to abort the flight The pilot was blamed. He had been given orders to enter the runway and wait to take off. A similar incidents happened with a JAL plane at the same airport in 2005 The control tower issued a warning twice. The pilot said afterwards that he misheard instructions to wait and thought the air controller said to prepare for “immediate takeoff.”

A couple days late a JAL entered a runway without permission in at Komatsu Airport in Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture. In September 2007, a JAL plane that landed at Kansai Airport responded to instructions for another plane and crossed a runway without permission.

In May 2009, a baggage container was sucked into a JAL plane engine at Los Angeles International Airport as the plane was getting ready to take off. No one was hurt. The flight was canceled and the passengers were put on other flights.

In June 2008, a JAL flight originating in Hawaii was cancelled because a 53-year-old copilot couldn’t make the flight after spending two nights in jail for urinating a Honolulu park.

In October 2007, an ANA jet landed on the wrong runway at Osaka’s Itami airport after confusing instructions from an air traffic controllers.

ANA Plane Nosedives 1,900 Meters and Flies Virtually Upside Down

In September 2011, an All Nippon Airways aircraft briefly flew virtually upside down after a copilot mistakenly operated a key steering mechanism. "It's usually impossible for a passenger airplane to fly in such a position," one source familiar with the industry told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "It could have led to a serious accident." The Transport Safety Board that ANA Flight 140, operated by ANA's group company Air Nippon, was on the verge of stalling after nosediving about 1,900 meters in 30 seconds on Sept. 6. The aircraft, carrying 117 passengers and crew members, was en route to Haneda Airport after departing from Naha.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 30, 2011]

According to the safety board, an analysis of the aircraft's digital flight recorder indicated that the copilot, alone in the cockpit at the time as the captain used a restroom, mistakenly turned the rudder trim knob twice to the left for a total of 10 seconds. The copilot apparently mistook the knob for the cockpit door lock switch as he tried to let the captain back in. The mistake is believed to have caused the airplane to tilt leftward and descend rapidly.

According to ANA, its aircraft usually tilt no more than 30 degrees when they roll, with the craft's nose pointing up no more than 20 degrees and pointing down no more than 10 degrees. In the Sept. 6 incident, however, the aircraft rolled left and briefly reached a tilt of 131.7 degrees. Its nose pointed down 35 degrees at one point, the safety board also said. "The figures are unbelievable, even in a case that requires such an urgent maneuver to avert a risk," a source close to ANA said. It was also revealed that a stick shaker, a mechanical device to warn pilots of an aircraft's imminent stall, was activated in the incident, indicating the ANA flight faced the risk of stalling.

ANA discovered that the airplane had been at risk of stalling and had flown virtually upside down after analyzing flight data the day after the incident, however, the company failed to make it public. A reportedly was finally made public by Japan’s Transport Safety Board about the three weeks after the near-disaster. Shin Nagase, a senior executive vice president of ANA, said: "We had no intention to cover up [the incident]. We couldn't explain it, because it was being investigated by the transport safety board."

Air Hijacking in Japan

There have been 17 plane highjackings in Japan since 1970.See Red Army, History

The greatest hijacking ransom ($6 million) was paid by the Japanese government to the hijackers of a JAL flight with 38 hostages at Dacca Airport in Bangladesh in October 1977.

In June 1995, an All Nippon Airways flighting with 365 people on board was hijacked by a bank employee who claimed to be a member of the Aum Supreme Truth cult. The man threatened flight attendants with a screwdriver and claimed he possessed explosives. He held the crew and passengers hostage for 16 hours.

Hijacking in 1999

In July 1999, 28-year-old Yuji Nishizawa smuggled a 20-centimeter kitchen knife aboard an All Nippon Airways 747 with 517 people on board. After the Hokkaido-bound plane took off from Haneda airport in the Tokyo, he muscled his way into the cockpit and ordered the pilot, 51-year-old Nauyuki Nagashima, to turn the plane around.

In an efforts to gain the controls himself Nishizawa got into a wrestling match with the pilot and slashed him across the neck and shoulder, causing him to bleed to death. Afterwards the plane took a sudden dip when the pilot was stabbed, passengers and crew entered the cockpit and managed to subdue Nishizawa by tying him up with neckties. A co-pilot safely landed the plane.

Nishizawa was able to get the large knife past security by using an employees-only door to gain admission to the departure area. He said his motive was fly the plane himself over Tokyo and under Rainbow Bridge (a bridge in Tokyo). He said he killed the pilot because he wouldn't let him fly the plane. Nishizawa had a history of mental illness and was fond of playing flight simulator computer games.

Image Sources: YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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