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Tail Fin of Downed JAL Jet Is Found : Discovery at Sea May Tell Why 747 Veered Off Course

August 14, 1985|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — A slab of the tail fin of a downed Japan Air Lines Boeing 747 jet was discovered late Tuesday in a bay south of Tokyo, nearly 100 miles from the crash site along a route that the plane followed before veering off course.

A Maritime Self-Defense Force ship on routine maneuvers discovered the top front portion of the tail fin--bearing part of JAL's distinctive red crane logo--in Sagami Bay, nine miles southwest of the tip of the Miura Peninsula.

The discoveries could provide an answer as to why the plane out of control and crashed far off course, airline officials said.

Today, searchers also found the plane's flight recorders in the wreckage, and a second plane fragment was found less than a mile from where the fin was recovered. It is a six-foot-long fiberglass pipe with a motor-like element attached. The part was marked "Aircraft 747."

Two women and two girls who miraculously survived the crash that killed 520 people Monday in a mountainous forest, about 70 miles northwest of Tokyo, were reported seriously injured but out of danger in hospitals today. Earlier press reports of three additional survivors have proved unfounded.

No other survivors among the 509 passengers and 15 crew members had been found by this morning, as about 4,500 Air and Ground Self-Defense Force troops, police officers and firefighters resumed their search at 5 o'clock. More than 100 bodies have been recovered.

The crash of JAL Flight 123, which was en route Monday night from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to the western city of Osaka, was the worst single-plane accident in aviation history.

Lost Control

The first fragment, found about one-third of the way from Haneda Airport to the point where the pilot radioed that he had lost control of his plane, was identified as part the fin, or vertical stabilizer, a stationary part of the tail in front of the rudder. Other pieces of the tail have been spotted at the crash site.

Airline spokesman Masaru Watanabe said the tail fin, with the rudder, provides essential directional control. "Without it, you can't control the plane--all you can do is accelerate and decelerate," Watanabe said.

The fin piece that was found measures nearly 15 feet in length, 5 feet at the base, 3 feet at the top, and is roughly 27 inches thick. When it was brought ashore late in the evening at Yokohama, 10 workmen were needed to carry it.

A JAL spokesman said that an intact vertical stabilizer is about 24 feet high, 11 feet wide and 27 inches thick.

No airline official would speculate about why or how the huge chunk of the tail fin could have broken off in flight. In radio communications with air-traffic controllers, the pilot, Capt. Masami Takahama, had said the plane's right rear door was broken and that seemed to be "the cause of the trouble." He did not indicate that anything was wrong with the vertical stabilizer.

Boeing Co. spokesman Dick Schleh also declined to comment on what might have caused the crash. "We don't want to speculate that it was the tail section or any other part of the aircraft," he said.

Schleh also said the company Tuesday sent a team of experts to Tokyo to help with the investigation.

Eiichiro Sekigawa, an aviation expert interviewed on television today, said he knew of no previous incident of only part of a tail fin falling off or being torn off in flight.

Sekigawa said the location of the fragment indicated that it probably came off five to six minutes after takeoff. About seven to eight minutes after that, the pilot sent his first emergency signal.

1978 Incident

Meanwhile, aviation experts disclosed that the aircraft involved in the company's sixth fatal crash in 32 years had, in a previous accident at Osaka airport on June 2, 1978, scraped the bottom rear of its fuselage while landing.

Film of the 1978 accident, which was telecast again Tuesday, showed that the landing tore small holes in the fuselage beneath the tail. Japanese aviation experts interviewed on television said that that accident, which put the plane out of operation for two weeks, could have created stress in the tail fin, though the fin itself was not damaged then.

The right rear door is located immediately above the section of the aircraft that scraped the runway on landing in 1978.

Schleh, the Boeing spokesman, said the company sent a team to repair the damage at that time, and "the aircraft was brought up to airworthiness standards." He said details of those repairs are not available.

Takahama, 49, who had more than 12,000 hours of flying time, first radioed Tokyo air controllers shortly after passing the point where the tail-fin segment was found Tuesday that he could not control the aircraft. Then, 18 minutes later, he radioed that the right rear door was "broken." He did not describe the condition of the door, or specify whether the door was still attached to the aircraft.

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