A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

July 2012   

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. 

San Francisco 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.

 The controller 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.  

During the 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.”

 The captain, 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.   

According to 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.  

The restricted 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.  

Was the 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.   

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