Wet landing
November 22, 2007 12:04 AM   Subscribe

On Nov 22, 1968, exactly 39 years ago, on a reasonably clear, uneventful day, a new JAL DC-8 descended toward the SFO airport. The landing was so well executed that no one was hurt when the pilot landed the plane into the San Francisco Bay, several miles from the airport. What explanation did 15 year veteran pilot Captain Kohei Asoh give for his botched landing? It was so unusual (especially in this day and age), so refreshingly honest, that it came to be known as the Asoh Defense. Amazingly, the plane was recovered, refurbished, and was in service for another 35 years.
posted by eye of newt (50 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting story... I don't know why it relates to The Abilene Pardox (as introduced in the fourth link), but a very interesting story nonetheless.
posted by amyms at 12:14 AM on November 22, 2007

Christ, what an Asoh! I'm sorry.

I've never heard it given a name before, but 'Yep, it's my fault. I fucked up' has always been my response when something goes horribly awry and it's my fault. Seems to have worked for me thus far.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:14 AM on November 22, 2007

The man certainly had a way with words.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:19 AM on November 22, 2007

cool article. thanks for posting.
posted by special-k at 12:23 AM on November 22, 2007

We need more folks like Asoh. People willing to fess up and tell it like it is. "I fucked up".

Then again, the article quoted him as saying "$#@&-up", which is difficult to pronounce...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:36 AM on November 22, 2007

amyms, I would guess it's a counterexample. While I was reading the story, I was thinking that this was several years before the Tenerife disaster, which led to the widespread adoption of cockpit resource management. Asoh's defense, in taking responsibility, was purely hierarchical, a buck-stops-here approach that was common in air pilotage of that era.

The NTSB actually concluded that JAL needed better training procedures as Asoh's unfamiliarity with the equipment on the plane was a factor.
posted by dhartung at 12:59 AM on November 22, 2007

"Then again, the article quoted him as saying "$#@&-up", which is difficult to pronounce..."
posted by blueberry at 1:06 AM on November 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

amyms, I would guess it's a counterexample.

That must be it, dhartung.
posted by amyms at 1:12 AM on November 22, 2007

Where did I just read recently about how people were likely to forgive someone who admits their own mistake, but only if the mistake did not involve a problem with their integrity? In those cases, the article I read said that denying responsibility was a better strategy.

I'm sure someone else has seen this.
posted by grouse at 1:42 AM on November 22, 2007

Anybody got alternative link to some pics?
posted by johnny7 at 1:44 AM on November 22, 2007

So, did it end Asoh's career?
posted by creasy boy at 1:45 AM on November 22, 2007

flapjax at midnight: it sounds like Q*Bert
posted by aubilenon at 1:48 AM on November 22, 2007

Apparently he was using a radio altimiter and he thought he set it right, but rather than being 211 feet above the bay whey he leveled off for landing, he was 11 feet above the bay.

Grouse, I read that article the other day. It was psychobabble crap, based on simulated situations--like 99% of those experiments.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:53 AM on November 22, 2007

The comments include the following postscript:

The Captain didn't commit suicide right away, rather he returned to Tokyo and was demoted to flying JAL freighters. Sometime after that, after being disgraced, he took his life
posted by Ironmouth at 3:30 AM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow, Ironmouth, that's a bit of a bummer...
posted by incomple at 4:21 AM on November 22, 2007

Here in Canada, we routinely suffer "judicial inquiries" that take years and cost tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to yield the inevitable finger pointed at a politician, bureaucrat, federally legislated agency or some group combination thereof, along with several bound printed volumes that say, essentially, "You $%#@!% 'd up."

I think that short article about the Asoh defence should be required reading for the whole wretched lot of them. (Brian Mulroney, Alphonso Gagliano, Chuck Guité and the RCMP -- are you listening?)
posted by Mike D at 4:25 AM on November 22, 2007

Great post. I've never heard of this before, but I'm getting the feeling that this is an urban legend. The official accident report (pdf) doesn't mention the "Asoh %#%$-up" line, and if you google "Asoh defense", you get a bunch links to an organizational communications training video and organizational behavior experts. I bet it's a story that communications people have been telling themselves is true for years, but it just isn't.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:39 AM on November 22, 2007

The third-person use of his own name makes it so cute, as if Captain Asoh were a Nipponese Elmo.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 5:17 AM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great story, thanks for the post!

Damn you, kuujjuarapik! The cynical part of my mind says "Of course, it must be an urban legend"—but I WANT TO BELIEVE!
posted by languagehat at 6:11 AM on November 22, 2007

You might have a better time googling for Aso instead of Asoh. I don't know whose crazy romanization rules were being used when his name was romanized, but there's no such thing as a trailing h in Japanese.

One of the google hits says that he ended up retiring after serving the rest of his career with JAL, so maybe there's a happy ending after all.
posted by thalakan at 6:34 AM on November 22, 2007

Yes, Captain Asoh admitted he screwed up without being forced into a confession. That's well and good if the lesson ends there.

Ultimately though, it was such a shaming experience for the man (perhaps also in a cultural sense) that he was sent to the JAL equivalent of the boondocks, flew freighters and later took his own life. I've been trying (unsuccessfully thus far) to verify if Capt. Asoh did indeed take his own life, as one of the commenters (user Steven777) indicates.

Is it really worth it when the end result is that you are driven to take your own life as a consequence, though? I'd suggest that a little less honesty and a little less falling on swords or hara-kiri might have served the same end and spared at least one life.
posted by geminus at 6:35 AM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

> The Captain didn't commit suicide right away, rather he returned to Tokyo and was demoted to flying JAL freighters. Sometime after that, after being disgraced, he took his life

That would mitigate the Asoh defense then -- it protects your organization and leaves you wide open. It doesn't necessarily lead to suicide but it's a career-ender. Since we're in the era after lifetime employment, the company will fire you, collect penalties, and you'll be unlikely to get a similar job from your competitors.

If the organization has your name on it (Martha Stewart, for example) they're probably not even going to let you do it.
posted by ardgedee at 6:37 AM on November 22, 2007

thalakan: but there's no such thing as a trailing h in Japanese.

posted by hangashore at 7:10 AM on November 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

I like his defense, and have learned from it. Next time I make a mistake, and am confronted about it, I will do as he did.

I'll tell them Mr. Asoh fucked up.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:18 AM on November 22, 2007 [6 favorites]

I've seen a trailing 'h' in Japanese, many times, most memorably in romanisations of Sato/Satoh.

It is not uncommon in Japanese to refer to oneself by name, not does it conjure up images of Elmo, for most Japanese.

Attitudes towards suicide were markedly different in Japan in 1968 - I would not be surprised if he took his life, (and I don't know that he did,) for him it would have been an honorable way out.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:31 AM on November 22, 2007

hangashore: that's awful.

The Noh romanization was probably done during the Dutch era of Japanese relations, so it's not a big surprise that it's not consistent with the standard romanization rules used today. What does surprise me is that Aso's name got mis-romanized well after the standard romanization rules were introduced.
posted by thalakan at 7:36 AM on November 22, 2007

Asoh-san Farewell.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:52 AM on November 22, 2007

The Asoh defence sounds refreshing, but in terms of making complex sociotechnical systems (e.g. commercial air flight) any safer, it's a total waste of time. Sure, he can take the blame, but without finding out what flaws in equipment, communication, procedures, selection or training contributed to the accident, it will happen again.
posted by anthill at 8:19 AM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

NTSB Report [PDF] and some photos.

Richard Clarke gained a lot of respect from me when he apologized for the 9/11 atttacks. "Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you."
posted by kirkaracha at 8:37 AM on November 22, 2007

the weather at SFO was reported to be "ceiling indefinite, 300 ft (90 m) overcast, sky partially obscured, 3/4 mile (1.2 km) visibility with fog"

As a pilot myself I wouldn't exactly call that a reasonably clear day... weather was certainly a factor.
posted by chips ahoy at 8:39 AM on November 22, 2007

Yes, on second thought, it does looks like it was pretty foggy. From the NTSB report, Moffet Field (south of the airport, which is where the plane was flying from) reported zero to 1/4 mile visibility. It was clearer at the airport, but he didn't make there.

It also says "Many passengers did not know they were in the water until they looked out the window," which tells you how good the landing was.

I didn't look at the comments before. It is a shame he felt he had to take his life, if this is true (though I can easily see how this could be a legend).
posted by eye of newt at 9:09 AM on November 22, 2007

I don't know whose crazy romanization rules were being used when his name was romanized, but there's no such thing as a trailing h in Japanese

yeah there is , the use of 'h' and 'u' are optional but interchangeable when romanizing long-o names like Gotoh, Ohta, etc.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:11 AM on November 22, 2007

Anthill has it. Cute story, but if you really find it refreshing you're looking at the situation with an AM talk radio level of sophistication.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:12 AM on November 22, 2007

Having not yet read the NTSB reports (thanks, kirkaracha) the big question is "why did he not see that he was that far off the glide slope?" I don't know of any non-precision landing that allows a DH of 200'.

Time to read....
posted by eriko at 9:34 AM on November 22, 2007

"AM talk radio level of sophistication"

This is what was going through my mind: the Clinton administration had three noteworthy scandals: Whitewater, Travel office firings, and, of course, Monica Lewinski. In each case it was the coverup that got them into trouble. It doesn't take much sophistication to figure out how history would have been changed if they had just owned up to it all.

Would an 'FM PBS' level of sophistication have interpreted these events differently?

Refreshing indeed.
posted by eye of newt at 9:41 AM on November 22, 2007

(thanks, kirkaracha?)
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:42 AM on November 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Aha. They really didn't look at the setup, so they wern't watching the glide slope indicators. They were trusting the autopilot.

As the report says -- "All indications in the cockpit; i.e., annunciator lights, ILS raw data indicators, and the descent through the ILS level altitude before reaching the outer marker, should have been sufficient to alert any of the crew members to the unsafe conditions and should have dictated that the approach be abandoned, long before the accident occurred."

Or, in other words, Asoh fucked up.
posted by eriko at 9:49 AM on November 22, 2007

Oops -- I didn't realized you'd linked it first, kuujjuarapik. Thanks to you as well, and my apologies.
posted by eriko at 10:02 AM on November 22, 2007

I found an Oakland Tribune article interviewing the pilot on August 19, 1971 (sorry, no link). Excerpts:

JAL ... demoted him in rank to a co-pilot. The decision, it explained, was taken because Asoh "caused inconvenience to the passengers"

He considers the demotion justified and he is not bitter.
"I still feel sorry for having troubled the passengers, although I did what I thought was right at that time because I was the plane's captain," he said.

Following the mishap, Asoh was grounded and ordered to take a five-month retraining program. He passed and was reassigned in September 1969 to JAL's international flights in Europe.

Asoh has never returned to San Francisco since the incident. He says he would like a flight there because of the warmth of friendship he experienced there.

For months following the belly-landing in San Francicso Bay, Asoh received letters of congratulations and encouragement from Japanese and Americans. "I did not know them, but the letters were very touching," he said.

JAL says there is no reason to prevent Asoh from being assigned to a flight to San Francisco, and adds that he may get a flight there in the future.
posted by eye of newt at 10:14 AM on November 22, 2007

Hubby used to work at the UAL maintenance base at SFO and he says that in 2007 they still had photos of this plane stuck out in the bay, and the passengers coming off in life rafts, hanging up around the base. The old-timers still talk about this incident.

Just as an aside, this particular aircraft always had an inspection rider for corrosion, meaning that it had to be inspected more frequently than usual, as a result of this salt/brackish water dunking. Probably this rider is still in effect if this plane is still flying.
posted by Quietgal at 10:53 AM on November 22, 2007

The Asoh Defense: Assume all responsibility, the dispose of the only witness (yourself) thereby allowing the truly guilty parties to go free. (commies, beatniks, liberals, whatever)
posted by blue_beetle at 10:55 AM on November 22, 2007

From the NTSB report, (thanks kirkaracha), Here is where the plane came to rest - they were a little off
posted by clarkie666 at 12:22 PM on November 22, 2007

The DC-8 was (still is) a pretty reliable aircraft. I recall a story about a DC-8 that was undergoing a D check somewhere in South America (Near Rio, IIRC.. because it was cheaper to do it there) and a crew was out doing a test flight. Nobody was paying attention to where they were going, and they hit a radio tower. Lopped off like 14' of the left wing, almost all the way up to the #1 engine. It still flew, so they turned around and hobbled back to the airport. They retrieved the section of wing and successfully reattached it to the aircraft but it sat there at the airport for a long time because the FAA didn't sign off on its airworthiness. A few minor repairs later and the FAA was happy and it got its cert back and went back into operations with the cargo airline that owned it. (The airline shall remain nameless. heh.)
posted by drstein at 12:55 PM on November 22, 2007

The DC-8 was (still is) a pretty reliable aircraft.

Yeah -- it's interesting to note that there are damn few 707s still flying, but there are *lots* of DC-8s, mostly freighters. UPS and Airborne Express still fly a bunch of them.
posted by eriko at 1:13 PM on November 22, 2007

Yeah -- it's interesting to note that there are damn few 707s still flying

USAF still has a bunch of derivative aircraft, IIRC.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:31 PM on November 22, 2007

KC-135 tankers. While both the KC-135 and the 707 are derived from the same prototype (the 367-80, commonly known as the Dash 80) they're different planes. In particular, the KC-135 was built much beefier, since it is was built to carry what is in effect bulky and dense cargo -- jet fuel.

The DC-8 was built very tough -- typical of Douglas Aircraft -- thus, it was able to transition to the freighter role when the passenger carriers moved on to newer aircraft. The DC-10 very much follows in this tradition -- AA and UA sold their DC-10s to the same operator, FedEx, who flies almost 90 of them (and a few of the failed follow-on, the MD-11, which is almost a perfect cargo aircraft, but was a lousy passenger airliner.)
posted by eriko at 7:22 PM on November 22, 2007

Very interesting. Regarding suicide as a face-saving measure:

Personally, I am of the opinion that we should encourage more public shaming and ritual suicide for those who fuck up, particularly those in the public sector.

It's always struck me as somewhat gauche that here in the U.S., we allow -- nay, encourage -- our public figures to live happily after disgracing themselves and their office, or abusing the public's trust; I could think of a laundry list of officials whom I'd have far more respect for, if they would only take a long walk off a short pier. (At least then, they would have done something right.)

That personal honor is treated with something between quaintness and contempt in the U.S. is one of the more damnable aspects of our culture.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:08 PM on November 22, 2007

In a bizarre coincidence, it turns out my dad was doing public relations for San Mateo County at the time of the incident. When I talked to him about it over Thanksgiving dinner, he says he distinctly remembers the newspapers reporting that Mr. Asoh committed suicide after the incident.
posted by thalakan at 10:23 PM on November 22, 2007

Closely related, thought the ethical inverse, of the famous Asshole Defense, viz., why did it happen? Because *that* Asshole Fucked Up. Rather than taking responsibility, the Asshole Defense requires you to assign it to someone else. It is much more common, in my experience, and often quite effective.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:27 AM on November 23, 2007

this may be a bit of a twisted thought, but I see a great marketing opportunity here. Sell tickets for charter adventure flights with Captain Asoh over famous bodies of water. (bring your own oars)
posted by janetplanet at 2:22 AM on November 24, 2007

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