The Terror of Flight 350

It should have been a routine flight.

For the 166 passengers of Japan Airlines Flight 350 scheduled to fly from Fukuoka to Tokyo on February 9, 1982, the possibility that something might go very wrong likely seemed absurd.  Not only did Japan Airlines have one of the best safety records in the world, but weather conditions were about as ideal as anyone could imagine.

Unfortunately, nobody had any idea that the plane's captain, 35-year-old Seiji Katagiri, had  a history of psychiatric problems, including  episodes of depression and hallucinations.   He was also prone to rampant paranoia leaving him to believe that he was under frequent surveillance.  On one occasion, he had called police to his house in Tokyo due to his suspicion that his house had been electronically bugged by unknown enemies.   A police search turned up no evidence of anything out of the ordinary, however.  As for Japan Airlines, they seemed unconcerned about Captani Katagiri's mental state.   Aside from receiving four week's leave just months before for a "psychosomatic disorder", he had since been returned to full duty with no concerns being raised about his fitness to fly.   

On the fateful day of the flight, the plane, a DC-8-61 crewed by Katagiri, along with a first officer, a flight engineer, and five attendants lifted off from Fukuoka Airport on its way to Haneda Airport.   Suddenly, and with no warning being given, Katagiri turned off the autopilot as the plane was approaching Tokyo and then pushed the plane into a dangerous descent.  Though reports vary as to what he did exactly, it was still left up to the flight engineer and first officer to restrain Katagiri and try to stabilize the plane before it was too late.

Despite their best efforts, the plane pancaked into the water at 8:47 AM, just 300 metres (nearly a thousand feet) in front of the runway.   The force of the impact caused the plane's cockpit section to become detached from the rest of the plane before finally coming to a halt in the water.   Twenty-four passengers died in the crash and the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the more than 500 emergency workers arriving in boats to rescue the surviving passengers and crew.  

Rescue operations were hampered by the plane's remaining fuel being pumped out to minimize the risk of an explosion.  With this delay and the need to ferry survivors in boats, it would take eight hours to evacuate everyone on board, including the first officer and flight engineer who were both seriously injured.  Passengers later reported that the plane's air hostesses immediately took charge after the crash and told people to remain in the cabin as everyone was being evacuated.  As it happened, Seiji Katagiri was one of the first people to get to safety.    Apparently afraid of being identified as the plane's captain, he told rescuers that he was an office worker instead.   To help the pretense, he had even taken off his jacket and tie and put on a passenger's cardigan that had been within reach.  

Police initially stated that the pilot had died in the crash and Katagari managed to blend in with the injured passengers without anyone noticing.  Despite the other two flight officers being taken to hospital for severe injuries and the rest of the airline crew being preoccupied helping survivors, police eventually found him at a nearby hotel with other survivors who had been taken there for treatment.  He was then hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation.

All that remained was the investigation into what caused the first Japan Airlines fatal crash of the 1980s.   Since weather conditions had been good and with no sign of mechanical failure, investigators turned their attention to the pilot of that flight.   While  a voice recording showed Katagiri crying out loud in the cockpit before the plane made its descent, investigators had little else to go on except the testimony of the other flight officers.   Flight officer Yoshifumi Ishikawa,  who was still confined to his hospital bed, had difficulty describing exactly what had happened.  'The control lever was extremely heavy, although it could be easily pulled up usually,'' he was quoted  in newspaper accounts as saying. ''Therefore I thought that the captain had done something wrong and I shouted to him,'' he said, adding, ''It occurred so suddenly that I don't remember clearly what I said.'I was so absorbed in pulling up the control lever, I did not see what the captain had done."  His voice in the recording in which he asked the captain what he was doing was clearly audible.

As for Seiji Katagiri himself, he apparently had little to say to police at first.  In later testimony provided during his trial, he stated that "When I switched from autopilot to manual operation in order to land the aircraft, I suddenly felt extremely queasy. I was then overcome by an inexplicable panic and then almost fainted."   According to the copilot, Katagiri began sobbing loudly just before the crash and the court determined that he had deliberately crashed the plane as part of a suicide attempt,    Katagiri was then found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a psychiatric ward in Tokyo where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Which still left the question of why a pilot with psychiatric problems had been allowed to fly in the first place.   Following the investigation into the crash, government investigators released a 246-page report stating that Katagiri crashed the plane while suffering from hallucinations.  The report also placed part of the blame for the crash on the inadequate medical checkup system that had deemed him fit for duty just three months before the crash occurred. 

In the aftermath of the crash, Japan Airlines appointed a special committee dedicated to reviewing “both the physical and mental health of flight crew for ensuring safe flight operations” to ensure that nothing like what happened to Flight 350 could occur again.  As for Seiji Katagiri, he was eventually released from hospital after several years though publicity from the crash would follow him and his wife for decades afterward.   Not only did he face the outrage of the families of deceased passengers,  he also had to deal with public scorn over his abandoning the plane instead of staying to help the passengers (a major breach given the Japanese sense of duty).   For years after the crash, "katagiri" became a common synonym for being egotistical and dishonorable.

Seiji Katagiri continues to live quietly with his wife in their home near Mount Fuji.  Supported by a generous pension, he is reportedly a recluse who avoids and mention of that long ago air disaster.   His exile was only interrupted in recent years by the 2015 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in 2015.  Much like Flight 350, the crash was caused by a suicidal pilot though, in this new tragedy, all 144 passengers and six crew members were killed when the plane crashed in the French Alps.   Katagiri refused all attempts at being interviewed and has managed to return to his quiet life.

Despite calls for tougher restrictions following the crash of Flight 350, it was only following the Germanwings crash that new regulations were passed ensuring that two qualified pilots remain in the cockpit at all times.   We can only wait and see whether this will be enough to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.


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