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Flight 123 was running only twelve minutes behind its scheduled departure when it lifted off at 6:12 p.m. Tokyo time. Following its flight plan, the big plane headed south, climbed to 24,000 ft., then banked sharply right, toward the west, as it passed near the small island of Oshima, south of Haneda. At 6:25 p.m., when the aircraft was 20 miles west of the island and approaching the Izu Peninsula, Tokyo-area air-traffic controllers caught the first hint of danger.
"Immediate, ah, trouble," radioed someone in Flight 123's cockpit, using English, the language of international aviation. "Request turn back to Haneda. Descend and maintain 220 [22,000 ft.]." Two minutes later, a member of the cockpit crew pushed a switch that sent an emergency code signal, "7700," flashing onto radar screens in Tokyo. Asked Tokyo control: "Confirm you are declared emergency. Is that right?" Flight 123: "Yes. Affirmative."
Seated in row 56, just four rows from the end of the cabin, Yumi Ochiai, 26, an offduty JAL flight attendant, saw and heard the signs of trouble. "There was a sudden baan [a Japanese expression emulating a loud noise]," she--recalled later. "It was overhead in the rear. My ears hurt. Immediately, the inside of the cabin became white. The vent hole at the cabin crew seat opened."
The cabin had lost pressure: the white mist was caused by the rush of the cold outside air into the passenger area. The vent to which Ochiai referred was a modification made in wide-bodies after a Turkish Airlines DC-10 lost its cargo door near Paris in 1974 and the difference in pressure between the lower cargo hold and the passenger cabin buckled the floor; this disrupted flight controls and spun the DC-10 into the earth, with the loss of all 346 aboard. The vent was designed to equalize pressure in any similar occurrence.
"No sound of an explosion was heard," Ochiai continued. "The ceiling above the rear lavatory came off. The automatic O2 [oxygen] masks dropped down at the same time, and the prerecorded announcement [on use of the masks] started."
Tokyo air-traffic control directed the troubled aircraft to turn to the east for a return to Haneda. At this point, radar showed the plane at 24,500 ft., flying at 471 m.p.h. But at 6:28 p.m., the radar indicated Flight 123 was heading northwest instead of east. Radioed Tokyo: "Fly magnetic 90 degrees." The reply from the craft was ominous: "But now uncontrol."
In the cabin, Ochiai felt the plane go into what she called a hira-hira, a word that describes the falling of a leaf, gentle and twisting. Radar now placed the plane at 21,860 ft., near the altitude its crew had requested. About three minutes later, Tokyo told the crew where the plane was: "You are now 72 nautical miles from Nagoya. Do you want to land at Nagoya?" A coastal city, Nagoya is 160 miles southwest of Tokyo. But the crew wished to get back to Haneda. The aircraft was now climbing again, back to 24,500 ft., and slowing only slightly.
The only hint of a potential cause of the trouble came at 6:33 p.m., and it turned out to be misleading. "R5 broken," a crewman reported by radio. "Cabin-pressure drop." The reference was to the right rear door of the plane through which food and supplies are normally brought into the cabin. The door had not been opened at Haneda before takeoff.