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Japan air crash museums keep dark memories alive

Tokyo — Charred aircraft wreckage, mangled black boxes, photographs of orphans clinging to coffins — Japan’s airlines don’t bury their worst air-crash memories, they keep them alive in museums.

People with a fear of flying may want to give a miss to the carriers’ two haunting exhibits near Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

Among the thousands of items recovered from crash sites and on show is a final message a doomed passenger scrawled onto an air sickness bag as his plane went down, asking his wife to take care of their children.

Another harrowing note is a woman’s last, desperate plea to survive, written onto an emergency evacuation leaflet while her airliner was on fire high over Japan, minutes before it plowed into the ground.

The morbid exhibitions, open to the public, are run by flag-carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) and its main rival All Nippon Airways (ANA).

Their point is not to dwell on death, but to preserve life.

Visits to their respective museums are mandatory for ANA staff and highly encouraged at JAL, with the aim of searing into employees’ minds, in graphic detail, the potentially catastrophic consequences of a simple mistake.

"We want to be sure that the memory of the accidents of the past stays alive within the company," said ANA spokesman Rob Henderson, whose airline opened its Safety Education Centre near Haneda in 2007.

Thanks to ANA’s strong safety record since the early 1970s, institutional memory of a major disaster is disappearing, he said.

"All the people who were working in the company when our last plane crash occurred, and who witnessed its terrible social consequences, will soon retire," he told AFP during a recent visit.

Yutaka Kanasaki, who heads JAL’s Safety Promotion Centre, opened in 2006, said that 90 percent of the company’s more than 50,000 employees had not worked at the airline at a time when one of its jets crashed.

"We want to prevent the sadness of air tragedies from fading out and instead pass along the knowledge of aviation risks to the next generation," he said.

The exhibition prominently displays airplane wreckage, including crushed tail sections and twisted passenger seats, as well as the remains of passengers’ personal remains, such as pens, eye glasses and car keys.

JAL describes its worst ever accident — and the deadliest disaster in aviation history involving a single plane — the August 12, 1985 crash of JAL Flight 123 which caused 520 deaths and, incredibly, left four survivors.

The Boeing 747 went down because a piece of the aircraft, which had been poorly repaired after an incident seven years earlier, detached during the flight, ripping off the stabilisers and the rudder.

It crashed into a mountain northwest of Tokyo after violently spiralling through the sky for 32 minutes — enough time for passengers to understand they were on their last flight, and to scribble their final messages.

ANA, in its own, dimly-lit crash museum, recounts the 55 safety incidents and 10 hijackings it suffered during its 57-year history, with special emphasis on its three deadliest crashes.

Visitors are also shown footage and photos of rescuers scooping debris out of the sea, of scores of coffins lined up in school gymnasiums, and of distressed widows tearfully confronting the airline’s then-president.

The section devoted to human error — which, visitors learn, causes 55 percent of aviation catastrophes — does not shy away from also pointing to errors committed by staff of other airlines.

In one case, the co-pilot of a Taiwan airliner noticed that the captain was heading up the wrong runway for take-off, but out of timidity toward his superior failed to notify officials.

The runway had been closed for repair works, causing a massive accident before the jet could lift off. The crash killed 83 people.

In another disaster, a US aircraft crew engrossed in fixing a light bulb failed to notice that their jet was losing altitude, resulting in 103 deaths.

Yet another flight had a lucky escape thanks to a skilful pilot, whose Boeing 767 ran out of fuel in mid-air 12,500 meters (41,250 feet) above Canada because tank fillers had confused litres with gallons.

The pilot, who flew glider planes as a hobby, managed to land the plane without the engines running.

Preserving, like open wounds, the memories of deadly disasters would seem odd to many western companies — but it is in keeping with corporate Japan’s tradition of displaying contrition and guilt for mistakes.

That may be part of the reason both airlines are now considered among the world’s safest. ANA’s last fatal accident was in 1971 and JAL’s in 1985.