Q: I’ll accept your premise that tails breaking from airplanes are among the rarest of catastrophes — flight 587 and the fictional Lost disaster notwithstanding. But don’t I recall, some years ago, a jumbo jet crashing in Japan after a similar incident? Exactly how often does this happen?
In 1985, a Japan Airlines (JAL) 747 crashed after a section of its tail was damaged soon after takeoff from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. During climb, the plane suffered a rupture of its aft-most bulkhead, causing pressurized cabin air to surge violently into the unpressurized rear structure, blowing away a large portion of the rudder. (The tailfin of a 747 is roughly the size of a three-story building, and is not a solid, single-piece structure.) Simultaneously, the lines for all four hydraulic systems were severed and bled dry, resulting in failure of the plane’s flying controls. Despite the crew’s efforts, struggling for more than half an hour to maintain control, the plane impacted a ridge near Mt. Fuji killing 520 people. The disaster stands as history’s second most deadly, just behind the 1977 runway collision of two 747s in the Canary Islands.
Years earlier, faulty repairs had been made to the jet’s aft pressure bulkhead following an abnormally hard landing. The airline’s president, Yasumoto Takagi, accepted full responsibility for the tragedy and resigned, visiting victims’ families to personally apologize. A JAL maintenance manager committed suicide. The FAA mandated changes to the 747’s empennage structure and hydraulics to preclude similar mishaps.
1985 was a great year for music — New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig; Psychocandy; the Reivers’ Translate Slowly — but a terrible year, relatively speaking, for air safety. Apart from JAL we had the Air India terrorist bombing (number 5 on the worst-ever list), the Delta L-1011 incident in Dallas (our last serious windshear loss) and the infamous crash of an Arrow Air military charter in Gander, Newfoundland, in which more than 240 US servicemen died. But look at it this way: The 747’s weaknesses were addressed after JAL; explosives-screening techniques should prevent another Air India; windshear detection and avoidance are so improved that we haven’t had a major, shear-related downing in two decades. Things happen; we learn.
As for tail-related disasters, which is what sparked this whole conversation, we’ve looked at two. (It’s a tad ironic, maybe, that American 587’s misfortunes involved the wake vortices spun from a JAL 747.) Off the top of my head I can think of no others. That’s admittedly not the most professional of research standards, but I’ve followed these things closely since I was old enough to read. If nothing jumps out at me, you can take that as a sign that it doesn’t happen very often.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.