The Suicidal Pilot Who Survived
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everything can change in an instant.
By Dietrich Alexander
The old man walks alone, in view of Mount Fuji, every day before sunset. He seems reluctant to meet the eyes of his neighbors, some of whom may be oblivious to what he’s done, but he can’t escape his past.
The nameplate on the 67-year-old’s house reads “Katagiri,” and a woman responds to the doorbell. When the would-be visitor asks whether her husband is able to talk about “that day” in 1982, there are five seconds of silence followed by a harsh “No.” “That day” was Feb. 9, 1982, when 24 people died after a suicidal pilot rammed a Japan Airlines flight into the ground less than a mile from the landing strip at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The pilot, Seiji Katagiri, lives in this two-story house with his wife in an affluent Japanese village in the Kanagawa Prefecture.
Neither Katagiri nor his wife wants to discuss the past. They’d rather forget about the trial, the years of psychiatric care, the anger of the victims’ relatives and the guilt. But suicidal missions are back in the headlines again, thanks to Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who intentionally crashed an Airbus into the French Alps on March 24, killing himself and all 149 passengers and crew. Aside from the astonishing parallels between these two cases, however, is one striking difference: The Japanese pensioner is the only pilot in history to have survived a self-induced crash.
He wasn’t a kamikaze pilot executing a suicidal mission for the empire; Katagiri simply wanted to die.
Katagiri leads a comfortable life in the coastal village of Hayama, occasionally venturing out in his Toyota Prius to shop and fill the gas tank. But neighbors, many of whom are unfamiliar with his past, say that contact with him is neither frequent nor warm. Israeli diamond dealer Dror Ben-Haim, who lives across the way with his Japanese wife, Mizuha, mentions Katagiri’s evening walks. “He is always looking down at the ground and walks down the street like a zombie,” says the 44-year-old, adding, “He seems very sad.”
When the Israeli and his wife learn why they’re being questioned, they are stunned. “Now things make sense,” Ben-Haim says. But what could have happened 33 years ago to turn their unassuming neighbor into a murderer? He wasn’t a kamikaze pilot executing a suicidal mission for the empire; Katagiri simply wanted to die, and apparently he didn’t mind that the other 173 people on board could be killed in the process. He sat in the cockpit of the McDonnell Douglas DC-8-61, next to co-pilot Yoshifumi Ishikawa and flight engineer Yoshimi Ozaki, as their flight from Fukuoka approached Tokyo, and suddenly pushed the control stick forward, switching off the autopilot and engaging the thrust reversers on two engines, according to Paul Simpson, author of The Mammoth Book of Air Disasters and Near Misses.
The co-pilot tried to regain control, but the nose tilted down and broke as the aircraft crashed into Tokyo Bay, killing two dozen people and injuring 77. Reacting quickly, Katagiri swapped his pilot’s jacket for a civilian cardigan and was among the first passengers to be rescued. Such actions were viewed harshly in a country that prioritizes consideration and duty, and to this day Japanese children call each other a “Katagiri” for being egotistical and dishonorable.
Legal documents captured Katagiri’s view of what happened: “When I switched from autopilot to manual operation in order to land the aircraft, I suddenly felt extremely queasy. I was then overcome by an inexplicable panic and then almost fainted.” The voice recorder revealed that Katagiri had been shouting nonsense beforehand and then sobbed as he awaited the crash. His co-pilot testified that Katagiri had been in a “state of delusion.” The court declared Katagiri mentally ill, sending him to a psychiatric ward in Tokyo, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was released after several years, not fully cured but harmless, and his generous pension allows him to live in relative comfort.
As with Lubitz, there were signs of Katagiri’s deteriorating mental state. In the year before the crash, he was granted leave from work due to his fragile mental condition. But after passing an exam given by Japan Airlines, he was returned to the cockpit. Had the company conferred with his doctor or wife, it might’ve discovered that he suffered from depression. Police were once called to his home because Katagiri suspected someone was tapping his phone — officers found nothing amiss. And his wife feared for her own safety in the face of his neurotic behavior, so much so that she left him for a while, but later returned.
The airline knew nothing of these incidents. Nor did it know what happened the day before the crash, which surely would have triggered an alarm: On Feb. 8, Katagiri flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka with the same crew and made an irrational right turn after takeoff by switching the right-hand engines to counterthrust. Only the presence of mind of co-pilot Ishikawa, a relative beginner with just 456 flying hours, prevented the plane from nose-diving. “Well-done,” responded Katagiri.
In the aftermath of the crash, Japan Airlines says it set up a committee dedicated to reviewing “both the physical and mental health of flight crew for ensuring safe flight operations,” and has an established support system in place, including psychiatric expertise. And faced with the recent horror of not being able to trust a sole pilot at the helm, a number of airlines responded to the Germanwings crash with new rules requiring at least two personnel in the cockpit at all times.
- Dietrich Alexander, OZY Author Contact Dietrich Alexander