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JAL captain indicted for alleged 1997 midair error.

NAGOYA, May 14 Kyodo


A Japan Airlines (JAL) captain was indicted Tuesday for an alleged error in piloting an MD-11 aircraft that caused sudden altitude changes over central Japan in June 1997, resulting in the death of a cabin crew member 20 months later, prosecutors said.

Koichi Takamoto, 51, has denied wrongdoing in the midair incident in which 13 others aboard the Nagoya-bound flight, which originated in Hong Kong, were also injured. Takamoto said it ''was an accident caused by sudden air stream changes, and there were no pilot errors whatsoever.''

The Nagoya District Public Prosecutors Office indicted Takamoto without arresting him, alleging professional negligence resulting in death and injuries. In Japan's aviation history, it is rare for an airline captain to be indicted in an aircraft accident.

The then Transport Ministry's Aircraft Accident Investigation Commission said in a report on the accident, issued Dec. 17, 1999, ''The disturbance was caused by the combined effects of a specific characteristic of the automatic pilot mechanism and pilot action.''

According to the indictment, JAL Flight 706 with 180 passengers and crew aboard hit air turbulence at around 7:48 p.m. on June 8, 1997, as it was descending toward Nagoya airport. The autopiloted aircraft was flying over Shima Peninsula on the eastern tip of Mie Prefecture.

After hitting the turbulence, the aircraft exceeded its speed limit.

When an aircraft is descending under autopilot mode and a pilot pulls the control stick, the MD-11 is designed to automatically turn off the autopilot function, which results in a sudden lift of the aircraft nose.

Thus, to decelerate the aircraft, a pilot needs to deactivate the autopilot and manually lift the nose. According to prosecutors, however, Takamoto did not shut off the autopilot before pulling the control stick, which resulted in a sudden nose lift, according to the prosecutors.

The sudden lift prompted Takamoto to attempt to reposition the aircraft by moving the nose up and down several times, which slammed some passengers and crew into the ceiling and the floor of the plane.

Cabin attendant Atsuko Taniguchi, who suffered brain contusion, died Feb. 16, 1999, after roughly 20 months in a Tokyo hospital, according to the indictment. Six passengers and seven other cabin crew members also sustained injuries in the incident.

The transport ministry's December 1999 report noted the accident was caused in part by the autopilot mechanism of the MD-11, which has a history of problems, and recommended the U.S. change the system design.

The MD-11 was manufactured by McDonnell Douglas Corp. of the United States, which merged with Boeing Co. in 1997.

The ministry's report also noted that none of the victims in the accident, barring one who suffered minor injuries, were wearing seat belts.

JAL said that following complaints from pilots that the MD-11 was not as stable as other aircraft, ''a broad range of measures were taken to account for plausible possibilities, including a revision of operation manuals and thorough training accordingly as well as crew training reviews.''

The Japan Federation of Flight Crew Unions, comprising 5,400 pilots and engineers working for Japanese airlines, denounced Takamoto's indictment.

Mikio Hayashida, federation chief, said at a news conference in Nagoya that the prosecutors' action was ''unjust.''

''It is inadmissible that a captain has to take responsibility for an accident that is beyond the scope assumed by (the aircraft's) basic design,'' Hayashida said.

According to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, there have only been four indictments filed against airline captains in Japan, over incidents between 1963 and 1977.
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Comment:JAL captain indicted for alleged 1997 midair error.
Publication:Japan Transportation Scan
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:May 20, 2002
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