On 28th December 1997, United Airlines flight 826 took off from Narita International Airport, Japan, bound for Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii. There were 374 passengers and 19 crew onboard the Boeing 747-122. The flight was mostly filled with Japanese-speaking passengers visiting Hawaii for the new year vacation.
The crew had been briefed that there may be turbulence during the flight about two hours in. The captain was concerned about it, but no weather reports forecasted such issues. During his welcome onboard message, he announced to the passengers that there might be turbulence en route. One of the Japanese-speaking flight attendants also translated the announcement. The safety demonstration was played with instructions to keep seatbelts fastened whilst seated.
The captain made a further announcement during the flight after a wave of turbulence. However, the flight attendant interpreting did not fully translate the statement as she did not want to alarm the passengers. The seat belt sign remained on for 15 minutes before being switched off for one hour.
One hour and 45 minutes after take-off, there was another wave, and the captain switched on the seatbelt signs, and appropriate announcements were made. Approximately one minute later, there was clear air turbulence; the captain told the flight attendants to sit down and that the passengers should not be alarmed. The aircraft dropped slightly, then shot upwards, and then back down violently. The aircraft pitched up and fell heavily again, approximately 100 feet.
"The plane dropped and shifted. I was thoroughly thrashed. I felt like a rag doll. I was smashed into the ceiling and thrown violently across the galley to the floor. It happened so quickly. The adrenalin rush brought me to my jump seat where I buckled in. The plane was a wreck. Flight attendants and passengers injured, some severely. One lady died from the impact."
Kent - Flight attendant
The captain asked the purser to check the conditions in the cabin. One flight attendant described the cabin as 'a mess' and reported that there were several injuries. The captain asked the purser to find out if there were any doctors onboard. Two doctors were found to assist, and the flight attendants brought oxygen bottles, first aid kits, and the aircraft medical kit. One female passenger, who wasn't wearing her seatbelt, was found unconscious and bleeding badly in the aisle.
"I was walking through D zone… I went up still hanging on then proceeded to lodge myself in a seat with a passenger and secured my legs under the arm rest for the duration of the turbulence. As soon as it was safe I went to check on the injured administering first aid. I was told by an injured flight attendant a lady was unconscious in E. I proceed to her lying on the floor at the same time Bruce came and we checked vitals. We get a mouth shield as she stopped breathing and had no pulse. Took over mouth-to-mouth when Jeff did chest compressions. A physician was called."
Lianne - Flight attendant
One doctor stayed at the rear of the aircraft, with the four flight attendants who were trying to resuscitate her. They performed 'mouth-to-mouth' and CPR for over an hour to no avail. The second doctor assisted the flight attendants who were further up in the cabin, administering first aid. The captain sent the second officer into the cabin. He reported several injuries to flight attendants and passengers.
The captain made the decision to return to Narita based on the fact that it was better for those needing medical attention. He could divert to the closer Midway Island, but there was no structural damage to the aircraft, so it was better to go back to Narita. He also entered the cabin and saw several flight attendants under duress because of their injuries. They were trying to now clear up the debris and damage inside the cabin. Although there was no structural damage, fixtures, furnishings, and objects had been moved or damaged by the accelerated forces during the turbulence.
"Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes we hit severe turbulence. The seatbelt sign was on for less than a minute when the turbulence hit. I was checking the seatbelts in C zone when all of a sudden the plane dropped. I dropped to the floor and grabbed the seat rail. A lady flew out her seat and I landed on my back. As soon as the turbulence subsisted (lasted only a few minutes) I assessed my injury then proceeded to check on the passengers. There were a few passengers in C zone with minor injuries. I treated people for cuts with bandages and people for abrasions and broken bones. After all of the passengers were treated, I proceeded to clear the cabin of all debris and damaged interior as best I could."
John - Flight attendant
None of the 15 passengers who were seriously injured were wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. The passenger who died had a fatal cervical spine injury. She was lifted out of her seat by the force, hit her head, and fell into the aisle. One hundred sixty-one passengers had minor injuries, and 197 had none. Of the flight attendants, three had severe injuries, including fractures to the spine, ribs, and pelvis, and ten had minor injuries. The flight crew and three flight attendants had no injuries. The aircraft landed at 02.20, and 74 passengers and nine flight attendants were taken to hospital.
"Flight departed at 9.05pm. At about 10.45 we were just finishing the meal service when the seat belt sign came on. About 15 secs later we hit severe clear air turbulence. I was in the service center at door 2. I tried to hang on to the counter and fell to the floor but the plane dropped very hard and I was thrown to the ceiling. I hit my head on the ceiling and got bruises and cuts on two fingers on my left hand. About 6 pots of coffee and tea that were on the counter also hit the ceiling and came on top of me drenching me with coffee. Fortunately, it was not scalding hot and I was not burned. Because one of the passengers was fatally injured we returned to NRT. As we returned I tried to clean up some of the mess in the service center, helped some of the injured crew members and helped passengers giving them ice bags for their injuries."
Elaine - Flight attendant
The NTSB stated that the causes of the accident were the pilot in command inadvertently flying into adverse weather conditions and the difficulty of getting weather forecasts for turbulence over the ocean. Contributing factors were the presence of clear air turbulence and the failure of the flight attendant to fully issue and translate the safety advisory from the captain.
United Airlines issued a safety bulletin describing the accident and commended the crew for carrying out their duties after the accident. They reiterated the importance of effective communication between the flight crew and the flight attendants. The airline reinforced its policy of encouraging passengers to wear their seatbelts when seated, regardless of whether the seatbelt sign is on or off.
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