Miracle in San Francisco Bay
On November 22,
1968, a Japan Air Lines DC-8 ditched in the Bay, over two
miles short of San Francisco International airport. Similar
to the Miracle on the Hudson, this incident resulted in no
deaths or injuries.
The flight was
a routine run, nine hours from Tokyo to San Francisco. It
was carrying ninety six passengers and a crew of eleven.
Everything about it was normal until the last few seconds,
which were terrifying for the pilots, while the passengers
never realized there was a problem.
Airport had visibility of about three quarters of a mile
that morning. Due to the weather, and a reported 3,500 feet
RVR, the JAL captain advised the Bay TRACON that he would
like a long final (approach). He requested vectors to a
point six miles east of the outer marker.
cleared the flight for the ILS and provided vectors and
airspeed. The captain stated he was executing an automatic
coupled approach, using the autopilot and flight director to
fly the aircraft.
As the DC-8
descended, it was about 100 feet below the published
altitude of 1,600 feet when it crossed the outer marker.
This was critical, and occurred because of confusion on the
part of the captain concerning the altimeters, and the
settings on the flight director and auto pilot. The rate of
descent continued uncorrected until a point about 2.5 miles
from the runway and 150 feet above the water.
descent for landing, the gear was lowered and flaps
extended. When they broke out below the fog, the first
officer called, “Breaking out of the overcast. I can’t see
the runway lights”. That was quickly followed by, “We’re
too low. Pull up. Pull up.”
who was flying the aircraft, applied power and began his
rotation when the wheels hit the water at 140 knots
airspeed. The deceleration was described as no more severe
than a hard landing at the airport. Many of the passengers
didn’t know they were in the water until they looked out the
windows. Much of the carry-on luggage in fact, did not move
while some of it skidded forward a couple of rows of seats.
The aircraft had come to rest with its wheels on the bottom
of the bay in water less than ten feet deep.
No injuries had
occurred. Passengers and crew evacuated on to both wings,
and in a rather orderly fashion, entered the life rafts to
await their rescue. While there was no apparent damage to
the fuselage or tail of the jet, the landing gear components
would need replacement, and the entire aircraft was subject
to salt-water immersion. The NTSB report said the full
extent of the corrosion damage was not known.
the NTSB, the probable cause of this accident was the
improper application of prescribed procedures to execute an
automatic-coupled ILS approach. This deviation from
prescribed procedures was due, in part, to the lack of
familiarization and infrequent operation of the installed
flight director and autopilot system.
visibility below the overcast was a factor as well. The
crew did not recognize the undershoot until it was too
late. But, had they followed the published and basic
procedures for crossing the outer marker at the designated
altitude, then descending on the glideslope, it’s likely
they would have seen the runway lights immediately upon
breaking out. The captains methods of using the
automatic-coupled approach on the ILS were not in accord
with JAL published procedures.
accident entirely this captains fault? Statements taken
from the first officer indicated neither pilot fully
understood the capabilities nor the operating techniques of
the Sperry Flight Director system. Further, several other
JAL flight personnel complained of insecurity when operating
the flight director. At the time, there was a lack of
information and training before pilots started using the
system. As a result of this accident, the entire DC-8-62
training program was revamped at JAL.
To his credit,
the captain accepted full responsibility for the accident.
Kohei Asoh was a pilot with over 10,000 hours, and taught
students in the Japanese military during the second world
war. The DC-8 was recovered, refurbished and returned to
service at JAL within a year. It flew with various
carriers for another 34 years.