ore than 30 years ago I became morosely fascinated by the actions of a Japanese pilot named Seigi Katagiri, who on Feb. 9, 1982 was in charge of a Japan Airlines DC-8 en route from Fukuoka to Tokyo with 166 passengers aboard.
With the plane on final descent to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Katagiri stunned his first officer and flight engineer by suddenly engaging the reverse thrusters of two the DC-8’s four engines, in effect stalling it well short of the runway. When his crew realized what was happening a scuffle broke out, as Katagiri’s colleagues struggled to regain control of the diving jet. They failed and it crashed into a shallow part of Tokyo Bay, killing 24 people.
At first, Katagiri was listed as one of the victims. Instead, he had left the cockpit, shed his jacket, and crawled into a rescue boat, saying he was an office worker and a passenger. Katagiri’s disguise was soon unmasked and he was hospitalized to determine his mental status.
What later emerged, albeit haphazardly, was a disturbing variation on air disasters that until then were almost invariably associated with bad weather, technical malfunctions, pilot error or — at the time less frequently — terrorism.
Katagiri had become a pilot in 1979, but a year later, in November 1980, he was granted a three-week leave for what the airline termed a “psychosomatic disorder” — Katagiri suffered from depression and gastritis — though the grounding eventually lasted nine months. Prompted by calls from his wife, the airline unsuccessfully encouraged him to seek psychological treatment. He once called police to his home near Tokyo convinced it was bugged. Police found nothing.
Following the 1980 leave, Katagiri was ruled fit and reinstated first to the rank of copilot in August 1981, regaining full pilot status in November. Interviewed after the Tokyo Bay crash, he admitted he’d felt “in bad shape” and nauseous in the cockpit at the time of the incident but insisted couldn’t remember putting the engines into reverse — though the cockpit recording revealed the alarmed response of his copilot (“What are you doing, captain, please stop it!”)
Despite its bizarre ingredients, the story swiftly faded from view for several reasons.
First, the crash involved a Japanese airline and Japanese fatalities, which had limited appeal to Western media (a tendency that persists). Second, transparency as known now was less in vogue, with Japanese self-censorship legendary if not notorious. Little information was released and much of the Japanese coverage speculative. Third, Katagiri, following his hospital interviews, was ruled as mentally unstable. He was considered unfit to stand trial. Finally, the 1980s were particularly pockmarked with commercial air crashes.
Still, the Katagiri case was an admonishment. It served as a reminder that even in an age of ever-widening aircraft computer technology, human beings, both in the air and on the ground, still controlled the fate of commercial aircraft. It also blurred the distinction between suicide and mass murder, since Katagiri, while unstable, was nonetheless responsible for the deaths of 24 people, an oblique version of a gunman run amok in a movie theater.
Katagiri’s folly opened a rarely touched Pandora’s Box that mostly gathers dust. But it still has a lid, as a recent flight over the Alps now shows.