Jury relives last minutes of doomed JAL 747 flight

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

By Peter Lewis, Times staff reporter
The Seattle Times/ Seattle Post Intelligencer

A doomed Japan Air Lines 747 seesawed up and down and rolled from side to side before plummeting to earth at 18,000 feet per minute, a King County jury has been told in a dramatic recounting of history’s worst aviation disaster involving a single plane.

The Superior Court jury is being asked to relive 32 minutes of terror in the first case to come to trial stemming from the 1985 crash in Japan that killed 520 people.

An Italian widow, Heidi Moroni, 48, and her 18-year-old son, Alesssandro, are in Seattle to seek damages against The Boeing Co. as a result of the death of her husband, Giancarlo Moroni, 49, and another son, Andrea Moroni, 17.

The two were among the hundreds of passengers and crew who perished Aug. 12, 1985, when the 747 slammed into a mountain on a flight from Tokyo to Osaka. Four passengers survived.

Boeing has admitted responsibility for the crash, saying repairs it conducted on the bulkhead, the rear wall where pressurization ends, after the plane scraped its tail during a landing in 1978 were to blame.

Jurors late last week heard from the plaintiffs’ aviation experts, who, relying on data taken from flight recorders, provided a nearly minute-by-minute account of what they described as the plane’s wildly fluctuating movements during its final 32 minutes of flight, after the plane lost its tail and rudder 12 minutes after takeoff.

Boeing attorneys say they will present a different picture of the final minutes when they call their own witnesses this week. According to plaintiffs’ experts, an explosive decompression of the passenger cabin occurred when the bulkhead failed at about 24,000 feet blowing the rear end of the plane apart. The decompression also caused humidity in the cabin to “condense out,” resulting in a white, milky atmosphere that lasted about 30 seconds, jurors were told.

In the explosion, the hydraulic manes that are a part of the plane’s navigation system were severed, leaving the pilots unable to steer the airplane.

Walter Schob, an aerodynamicist and aerospace consultant who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Institute of System Safety and Management, told jurors that as the plane started to descend, passengers experienced negative G’s,” or a floating sensation as if they “were going over the top of a roller coaster.” (G’s are a measure of gravity, with one G being normal force of gravity on Earth.)

At the other extreme, near the end of the death flight, passengers were pressed down by the force of “three G’s,” Schob testified.

“If I were sitting in that passenger cabin as a 200-pound person, and I’m exposed to three G’s, I’d weigh 600 pounds,” Schob said.

Holding a roughly foot-long scale model of a JAL 747 like the one that crashed, Schob demonstrated the crippled plane’s movements for jurors.

Under normal commercial airline operations, planes seldom bank at an angle greater than 15 degrees, Schob testified. But on numerous occasions, passengers aboard the JAb 747 experienced bank angles exceeding 40 degrees, and, at one point, the bank angle reached 70 degrees, Schob said, turning the plane as he spoke.

Also testifying for the plaintiffs was Robert Besco, an aviation psychologist and retired American Airlines pilot who flew for 20 years.

Besco, who also held the scale-model plane to demonstrate as he testified, said the aircraft’s movements were “very noticeable to everyone on the plane.”

In normal airline operations, turns and angles of descent and ascent are performed in a coordinated fashion to keep passengers seats directly beneath them. But that was not the case on JAL Flight 123. There was, he said, “a very uncomfortable feeling for people.”

The crew, fighting to regain control, applied and removed power from the plane’s engines, activated wing flaps, and even apparently extended the landing gear at 25,000 feet to serve as a substitute rudder, Besco testified.

In a crude attempt to regain control, the captain and pilot throttled engines up and down, subjecting passengers on numerous occasions to extreme noise variations, ranging from a shudder as the plane nearly stalled, to the roar of full power comparable to or exceeding the level at takeoff, Besco testified.

During the flight, passengers heard a number of recorded and live announcements from the flight crew, including warnings to fasten their seat belts and extinguish cigarettes, Besco testified. But passengers were never told that the pilots didn’t have control of the plane, or about plans under way to try to correct the problem, he added.

In its final minute of flight, the plane was descending at the rate of 18,000 feet per minute, Besco testified. “A jet fighter is the only thing I’ve ever seen that will descend that fast,” he said.

Normally, commercial airliners seldom descend at a rate exceeding 1,500 feet per minute, both Schob and Besco testified.

“Oxygen masks dropped …announcements were made …most of the evidence will suggest that there was no panic, no hysteria … the flight attendants took charge,” Boeing attorney Tom McLaughlin told jurors in opening statements last week.

“Although the airplane went through some movements that you wouldn’t normally expect, those movements were not that out-of-the-ordinary in comparison to other movements that we might experience as human beings,” he contended.

The Moroni case is the first to come to trial anywhere in the world. Three additional cases – two involving Hong Kong Chinese victims, and the third, a Colorado man – are pending in King County Superior Court.

Claims and litigation are being worked out on three continents: in Japan, where the crash occurred; in the U.S., where the Moroni case is among a handful involving non-Japanese resident passengers whose cases were not transferred to Japan; and in England, where the insurers for both Boeing and JAL operate.

JAL is not a defendant in the cases pending in Seattle.

Spokesmen and attorneys for Boeing and JAL would not comment in recent days, but according to earlier reports, the total of eventual payments appears likely to exceed $500 million, with Boeing and JAL agreeing to roughly an 80-20 division in making payments.

According to Japanese press reports last month, 377 of the 520 cases have been settled out of court.

Following the crash, Boeing made two remedial design changes on the more than 600 747s then in service, including installation of an additional cover in the bulkhead, and of an additional fuse to assure hydraulic systems work in case systems in the tail assembly become inoperative.

At issue in the Seattle trial, which is expected to go to the jury by week’s end, is the amount of compensation due Heidi and Alessandra (Alex) Moroni, who were in Italy at the time of the crash.

Jurors are expected to weigh the suffering experienced by the passengers before impact, and, in the particular case of Mr. Moroni, the amount of money necessary to make his widow and remaining son “whole” – meaning the income they would have received if the accident had never happened.

According to their attorneys, the family enjoyed an upper middle class lifestyle in the outskirts of Milan until Moroni died, eventually throwing his businesses into bankruptcy and forcing Mrs. Moroni and her son to live on borrowed money.

Besides hearing economists testify on what the businesses’ projected profitability would have been had Moroni survived, jurors Friday viewed an eight-minute videotape computer simulation recreating part of the doomed flight.

Aside from the sense of impending doom experienced by Moroni the other main claim at issue is the value of Moroni’s businesses, G & L Moroni Co., and Fachini Co., manufacturing and marketing companies, respectively, that produced and distributed thin pieces of wire.

Plaintiff’s attorney Charles Lipcon has admitted to jurors that Moroni’s businesses had suffered some hard times earlier this decade as a result of a worldwide recession that was particularly bad in Italy. But Lipcon maintained that Moroni’s businesses had begun recovering in 1984 and 1985.

In any event, Lipcon added, Moroni had always managed, through adept use of tax returns, to support his family in fine style for many years.

Lipcon said that Moroni’s income allowed the family to have one of only three swimming pools in their town, own a couple of cars, and spend half a million dollars remodeling their home. Her husband’s death “started the destruction of her family,” Lipcon told jurors.

GCR Co., the name of the firm that stepped in to buy Moroni’s businesses at a bargain-basement price, has been “reaping the harvest” he sowed in the Orient, and earned $2.7 million in profits to date, Lipcon said.

He said that, to maintain the standard of living for the rest of her life that she enjoyed while her husband was alive, Mrs. Moroni needs $4.3 million.

But Boeing attorney McLaughlin countered that the Moroni businesses suffered severe financial difficulties, with a profit margin on the order of 5 percent in its best years.

The businesses ran up extensive debts to suppliers, banks and the government, McLaughlin told jurors. He also said that it doesn’t necessarily follow that, had he lived, Moroni would have made the sales picked up by GCR, which is a much larger company.

McLaughlin noted that roughly half of GCR’s sales since Moroni’s death were to an American company called Amercord, which is partly owned by GCR.

“Those (GCR’s) profits would not come to Mr. Moroni automatically by any means.” McLaughlin contended.

The plaintiffs are expected to end their presentation tomorrow, with Heidi Moroni’s testimony. The case is being heard by a nine-woman, three-man jury in the court of Judge Terrence Carroll.