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The DC-8 that was too young to die!

By Richard Silagi
March 9, 2001

Not too many airliners have survived crash landings at off airport locations and have lived to fly again. This is the story of one such crash survivor.

On November 22nd 1968, Japan Air flight #2 was nearing the end of a routine flight from Tokyo to San Francisco. Captain Kohhei Asoh, a 15 year JAL veteran, was in command of the flight which was being operated with a new DC-8-62. JA8032 (msn # 45954) had rolled off the Douglas assembly line in April of 1968 and had been in service with JAL for only four months.

As Captain Asoh was approaching SFO at approximately 9:30 am, 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". The airport's minimums at the time were, 200 ft (60 m) ceiling and 1/2 mile (0.8 km) visibility. Other aircraft had been landing ahead of JAL #2 without incident at the rate of about 8 to 10 an hour.

According to the NTSB, Capt. Asoh said that he was making a coupled approach, but because of problems with his pressure altimeter, he was relying on the more accurate radio altimeter for verification of altitude. Capt. Asoh set the radio altimeter to give a light at a decision height of 211 ft (63.3 m). When the light blinked on, Capt. Asoh looked up expecting to be at about 200 ft (60 m) and heading for 28L.

Instead, he was nearly in the waters of San Francisco Bay. He applied power, which raised the nose somewhat, and then the right main landing gear hit the water, followed by the left, and then the aircraft slewed to the left. Capt. Asoh cut power the aircraft settled into the shallow waters of San Francisco Bay.

The aircraft hit the water slightly nose-up, about 500 yards (450 m) from the Coyote Point Yacht Harbor and a couple miles short of the runway, in about 9 ft (3 m) of water. Once the plane came to a stop, it started to sink. The plane finally came to a stop when the landing gear settled into the mud at the bottom of the bay, and the rising water stopped just short of the bottom sills of the cabin doors. Luckily all of the passengers and crew members escaped the incident without injury. According local newspaper reports of the incident, most passengers did not even get their feet wet!

One interesting factor which may not have caused the crash, but did not help prevent it, was that the FAA had just recently decommissioned and removed the Precision Approach Radar (PAR) system at SFO. Had that equipment still been operational, the controllers in the tower could have alerted the crew to their low approach. Apparently the FAA had decided to remove the outdated system since very few airlines were still using it.

Two days after the crash, crews from Bigge Drayage Co. and Air International Recovery hoisted the plane out of the water with large floating cranes and placed the plane on a large barge. As soon as the plane was out of the salt water of San Francisco Bay, crews started washing down the plane with fresh water to help prevent corrosion. The plane was then taken by barge to United Airline's maintenance base at SFO.

Click for large version
Click here for full size photo!

A shot of the aircraft just a few days after the accident.
Photo © John P. Stewart

When the plane arrived at UAL's overhaul dock, the cabin interior and lower fuselage compartments were stripped and flushed with additional gallons of fresh water and the aircraft was treated with chemicals and oils in an effort to prevent corrosion.

Once the anti-corrosions measures were completed, crews started to analyze the damage the aircraft. Maintenance crews discovered that the aircraft had surprisingly suffered little structural damage. Since the aircraft was new and had accumulated only 1,700 flight hours prior to the crash, airline officials determined that it would be cost effective to repair the aircraft instead of scrapping it.

United Airlines maintenance crews then spent the next four months repairing the aircraft. First, all 36 miles (57.6 km) of wiring was replaced at a cost of about $220,000. All of the flight and engine control cables were also replaced. Other major repair items to the aircraft included:
  • Replacement of two engine pylons at a cost of $125,000 each, plus repairs to a third.
  • Removal, reworking, and corrosion treatment of control surfaces. The left outboard flap was replaced at a cost of $52,500, as well as both inboard flaps, for $21,400.
  • Replacement of left landing gear cylinder and bogie for $53,000.
  • Replacement of aft galley units at a cost of $100,000.

In addition, all hydraulic units, as well as 90% of the pneumatic and air conditioning systems, were removed and repaired or replaced. All instrument panels were removed and instruments tested. Fuel valves and pumps were removed, fuel tanks were flushed and samples taken to make sure no salt was present.

Four months later, after 52,000 man hours, and a $4-million repair bill, JA8032 completed a 10 minute test flight on March 26th, 1969. On March 31st 1969, the plane was returned to JAL.

The plane continued to fly for Japan Airlines for 14 more years until it was sold in March 1983 to Air ABC and reregistered as TF-BBF. In May of 1983 the plane was leased to Hamzair until December 1983 when it was returned to Air ABC. In July of 1984 it was sold to Okada Air of Nigeria and reregistered as 5N-AON. A few years later, in April of 1987 the plane was purchased by Airbone Express and reregistered as N808AX. Currently this plane is still a member of the Airborne Express fleet, and is still flying 32 years after the crash!

Click for large version
Click here for full size photo!

The aircraft in it's current colors.
Photo © Richard Silagi

I guess the airline officials made a wise decision to spend the money repairing it instead of sending it to the scrap heap. Obviously this plane was too young to die.

Written by
Richard Silagi

45 User Comments:
Username: Pilot1113 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 02:59:59 and read 32768 times.

I found this article extremely well written and a pleasure to read!

Somebody listened to their English teacher back in high school! ;)

I look forward to reading more articles, if he has any, from Mr. Silagi.

- Neil Harrison

Username: Zsx81 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 03:03:11 and read 32768 times.

Very good article!!! Intresting story

Username: Brentspeed [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 03:24:17 and read 32768 times.

Articles like this give some additional personality to aircraft that might otherwise be forgotten. Very entertaining indeed . . . and even a happy ending :)

-Brent Hammond

Username: B747 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 03:55:14 and read 32768 times.

Very well written, and very interesting. I would like to see more stories like this to appear on airliners. Kudos to Mr. Silagi

Username: Pacific [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 04:00:03 and read 32768 times.

A very well written article and an excellent first topic in this new section. Keep up the good work!


Username: JRodriguez136 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 04:52:05 and read 32768 times.

Very interesting and well developed, hope we get more like these.

Username: 747-451 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 05:06:49 and read 32768 times.

Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!

Waht a well aritten article, and what a fantastic idea to follow up on the histories of some of our favorite aircraft!


Username: AKE0404AR [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 05:29:06 and read 32768 times.

Great story and well written Richard.


Username: Trintocan [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 05:49:57 and read 32768 times.

An excellent article indeed. It isvery interesting to know the "behind-the-scenes" happenings of the aircraft which we see from time to time. Airborne Express serves POS so that plane may just turn up here one of these days.

An excellent article Mr. Silagi.


Username: Early Air [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 06:07:01 and read 32768 times.

This article was great. I found it very interestng to read. Plus, the story was VERY interesting, i hope to see this aircraft in person one day. Airliners.net needs more articles like this!

Early Air

Username: Greg [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 16:21:18 and read 32768 times.

I'll assume that all four engines were replaced. Were they a total loss? Or could they be fixed as well?
Nice story...I beleive there is an interesting picture of it in the Bay that ran in the SF papers at the time.

Username: 747 4-ever [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 17:14:59 and read 32768 times.

Very well written and very intresting article.
I really look forward to see moore articles like this at airliners.net.

747 4-ever

Username: EGGD [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 17:28:15 and read 32768 times.

I thought it WAS a newspaper article it was so well written.

Regards EGGD

Username: Aviador [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 20:39:01 and read 32768 times.

This is one of the best articles I've ever read, Mr. Saligi - a real success story. I'm one, who despite being called a lunatic for it, believe strongly in the unique spirit or "personality" (as Brentspeed said) of each aircraft, and you've got to admit that even if it didn't exist before, it was born in April 1968.

Airbex DC-8 freighters are currently being leased by BWIA, so I sincerely hope that one of these days when I look over to the ramp at POS, I can feast my eyes on the DC-8 that stole my heart.

Kind regards,
Aviador :-)

Username: Senatorto [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 22:10:09 and read 32768 times.

A very great story. It is like a bedtime story for aviation folks. More interesting stories like this on individual planes will be great features of airliners.net (of course with actual picture of the planes). It was quite similar to the story of Aeroflot Antonov An-124-100 at Maastricht. Great Job!!

Username: Ryu2 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-09 22:15:39 and read 32768 times.

Very interesting seeing how just much they can do to repair aircraft. I wonder why China Airlines didn't decide to fix up their 744 that went into Hong Kong harbor back in 1993, at low speed?

Username: Timbo [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-10 00:40:47 and read 32768 times.

Very interesting!

Username: B-707 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-10 01:54:04 and read 32768 times.


Username: Hkgspotter1 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-10 07:16:12 and read 32768 times.

Very well done. That could be from a book !!

Well done.

Username: KU104 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-10 16:09:50 and read 32768 times.

Great Article good Idea from the Airliner.Net team your doing a great job fellas, and Hope to read more from Mr. Silagi

--Kuwaiti 104

Username: DEECEE8 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-11 01:26:18 and read 32768 times.

I too believe that the DC-8 was really a great aircraft, and one which was very important in the development of Passenger (Jet) Travel. The DC-8 was powerful, and a pleasure to fly. This well written article was most entertaining, and a testament to the strength and endurance of a fine aircraft.

My compliments to the author.

Username: Ben88 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-11 01:34:41 and read 32768 times.

Very interesting article, but it should be proofread more carefully before being published.

Username: Carlos borda [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-11 19:35:21 and read 32768 times.

NIce job Rich! Very Interesting story and history about N808AX.

Username: An-225 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-11 21:01:23 and read 32768 times.


Username: Lanpie [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-11 23:00:08 and read 32768 times.

Hi Mr. Silagi,

This is a very good article and a lot of information is given on the cost of repairing an aircraft.

Username: Henryjr [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-11 23:09:21 and read 32768 times.

What a great article Richard!!


Henry Jr Godding
Monreal, Québec, Canada

Username: Acidradio [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-12 07:26:59 and read 32768 times.

That is an amazing story, and what I find even more amazing is that I've probably gotten to load, if not go on board of this aircraft. I used to work for Airborne Express and as my one fun thing to do for the day I talked my boss into letting me help load the DC-8 at the end of the day. I do recall seeing N808AX at least a few times parked at the slip at MSP, and could very well have gotten to work in the cargo holds or maybe load containers on the top deck.

What is amazing is that this aircraft has been owned by like five airlines, all in different parts of the world, and with such a checkered past enters just plain-old overnight air package service in the US. And it landed in the ocean and still runs to this day!

Thanks again for the wonderful article. This one especially hits home for me.

Username: Cv747 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-12 17:15:41 and read 32768 times.

Great Article. Shows how strong the DC-8 is.
But one thing bugs me. I thought Air ABC was a Luxembourg based company owned by an Icelandic guy. (This is why the aircraft was registered TF-BBF)
Where does Turkey come in?

Username: C72 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-13 00:05:18 and read 32768 times.

Excellent!!!! Very insightful, accurate and well written! Look forward to more of your writing as well as photos!

Username: Tazpilot [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-13 18:48:58 and read 32768 times.

A very GOOD article! Having flown this great old lady for several years before transferring to the 767 at Airborne Express, I can tell you that she has served us well in her time. However, she may soon retire due to her inefficient costs. I will remember her though and miss her when she goes.

Username: Mr Spaceman [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-14 21:58:02 and read 32768 times.

"Thank You" Richard for your excellent story. It was nice to read that not only did the passengers survive the crash, but so did the DC-8. Your style of writing is very smooth and to the point. You obviously had to research this accident to learn the facts. I am curious. Did you learn what caused it ? Did the aircraft's Radio Altimeter fail?.....Once again, good work!

Username: Rottendog [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-15 21:40:54 and read 32768 times.

Good Article...I lived in Berkeley, Ca when that happened. I was 14 at the time. My Dad and I went out on our boat the day they plucked her out of the water and put her on a barge. A lot of fun to watch!

Username: Steven777 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-16 06:57:30 and read 32768 times.

My Dad currently works for United, as did my Grandfather at one point, and were working at the UAL maintenance base in SFO when this incident happened. I'm not entirely sure if they worked on it, however, though it's possible since my Dad was in the machine shop and my grandpa was an aircraft painter there. I do remember hearing about this incident from them, and they told me the Japanese captain had actually committed suicide following the incident, because he felt he had disgraced himself to his family, airline, and country as a result of this incident.

My Dad has now been a mechanic for United for a little over 33 years, and the DC-8 was, and is, still his favorite aircraft he ever worked on. He still tells me how incredibly well built it is, and that's it's far superior to what's out there now, especially compared with the mechanical and reliability nightmares he currently faces when working on Airbus equipment.

He has told me numerous times that airlines were foolish to retire the DC-8, but because it was "old" and after news media reports of what happens with older airplanes. (they conveniently forgot to mention it depends on how well they're maintained - age has nothing to do with it)

I remember many flights between Portland, OR and Chicago O'Hare on United's DC-8 fleet, especially first class! My first flight was on a United DC-8 in July 1973 when I was only three weeks old, SFO to ORD.

Username: AApilot2b [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-17 21:20:21 and read 32768 times.

Great story! Like so many other people have mentioned here, it is very interesting to get the complete history on an otherwise forgotten airplane. For the most part planes are nameless to those who travel on them, but if one could look inside its history, they would find numerous stories to tell. Thanks for a great article!

Username: Bvanhan [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-19 18:54:01 and read 32768 times.

At the time of this accident I was fishing off of the old San Mateo bridge. I saw the DC-8 coming down too low so I continued to watch it and I saw and heard it plunge into the San Francisco bay. It is a fact that, as someone already pointed out, the captain committed suicide as a result of the accident. I developed a real love for the DC-8 because I worked for Overseas National Airways from 1971 to 1977. Thanks for a well written article!

Username: Channex [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-19 19:31:51 and read 32768 times.

Fantastic article - very well written and very informative. How many aircraft would get such a second chance these days? Looks like the airline bosses made the right decision at the time !

Thanks for this

Username: Tomh [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-19 19:55:12 and read 32768 times.


Most individual aircraft histories are a bit dry and boring, but your research has brought to light a fascinating story. New photographers should understand better the importance of getting the registration number in the picture after reading this piece.

Once, on a flight in a Pan Am DC-8, I spent an hour or more fascinated by the shock wave dancing on the top of the wing a few feet from my window. I didn't know then that Douglas had performed one or two supersonic dives with the sleek DC-8 a few years earlier.

Keep the stories coming. This one was nicely done!

Tom Hildreth

Username: Steven777 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-19 22:11:45 and read 32768 times.

As a follow up, I printed and gave this article to my Grandfather. He was amazed by the quality and detail, and when I saw him yesterday, he had pulled out two articles from the SF Chronicle showing the salvage operation, and after when it returned to the skies. He also showed me pictures he took of the repair operation when the plane was in a UAL repair dock. He did some of the repainting inside the aircraft, my Dad however was not directly involved.

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.

Username: 737doctor [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-20 07:28:27 and read 32768 times.

I'm not surprised by this story. The DC-8 is a wonderful aircraft; almost over-engineered. The fact that so many of them are still in service is a testament to their durability (for comparison, look at the 707, an aircraft from the same era). The DC-8 is woefully unappreciated by many so called "aviation enthusiasts", but for the most part, those who have had the pleasure to fly or work on these great planes see things much differently.

Username: Tobecker [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-21 22:26:34 and read 32768 times.

Great history lesson.

I recently had a day-long tour of the United maintenence facility in San Francisco by a family friend who happened to on the JSL DC-8 after the incident.

This story gave me even more information and then I realized it's the Airborne Express jet that I have seen at SJC many times.

Username: Flygga [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-23 19:20:53 and read 32768 times.

Thanks to all of you for your kind comments about my article. When I was a kid in school I hated my English classes and paid very little attention to my teachers. As I grew older, I realized that I really should have paid more attention. Writing is still a difficult task for me, however all of your kind comments have encouraged me to write more.

Richard Silagi

Username: Yojo87 [User Info]
Posted 2001-03-26 05:35:45 and read 32768 times.

Amaizing! I'm really suprized that the landing gear wasn't riped of by the force of the water!

Username: Braniff747SP [User Info]
Posted 2009-10-31 08:17:11 and read 32768 times.

Great article, it's a pity that I can't see the pictures now in 2009.

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2010-08-27 13:34:43 and read 32768 times.

wow man!
thanks for sharing this article!
It's a interesting story, but i can't see the pics :(

nice article!

Username: B707forever [User Info]
Posted 2010-12-09 11:47:38 and read 32768 times.

Thanks for the article.

As a 12 year old boy I remember seeing the picture of the JAL DC-8 sitting in the water on the front page of The Daily News at our local paper shop.

I grabbed it, already a big aviation enthusiast, and remember vividly the line that said passengers did not even get their feet wet. I remember thinking how safe it was to fly and there's little that can go wrong! I was 12!

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