Episode 83: China Airlines Flight 006

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Summary:

On February 19, 1985, China Airlines Flight 006, with 274 people onboard, experienced a malfunction of its number four engine while cruising at almost forty thousand feet. Suddenly, the plane entered a dive, spiraling down out of the sky. In episode 83 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, Shelly shares the terrifying details of a plane out of control and an investigation that reached several uncomfortable conclusions about what led to the fall.



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On February 19, 1985, after the crew of China Airlines Flight 006 experienced a malfunction of its number four engine while cruising at almost forty thousand feet, the plane suddenly entered a dive, spiraling down out of the sky. In episode 83 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we share how, amazingly, with precious altitude remaining, the captain managed to level off the plane after falling more than 30,000 feet in two and a half minutes. After making an emergency landing in San Francisco, it was discovered that, despite the harrowing and crushing fall, the 274 passengers and crew walked away with only a few serious injuries and a badly damaged plane. While passengers and media outlets began to regard the captain as a hero, the NTSB investigation soon discovered that it was actually the pilots who had inadvertently caused the terrifying fall from the sky, putting everyone’s lives in danger. 

China Airlines 006 Departs Taipei for Los Angeles with 274 People Onboard

It is February 19, 1985, and China Airlines Flight 006 is a daily non-stop flight from Taipei, Taiwan, to Los Angeles International Airport in the United States. As this is an overnight international flight, the 251 passengers settle into their seats after the dinner service hoping to get as much sleep as possible on this 14-plus hour flight.  

While the passengers are settling in, the 23 crew members onboard this Boeing 747SP are busy with the various flight and cabin operations required to execute a long-haul flight. 

The main cockpit crew consists of Captain Min-Yuan Ho, age 55, with approximately 15,500 flight hours, including 3,748 hours on the Boeing 747; First Officer Ju-Yue Chang, age 53, with more than 7,700 hours and 4,553 of them on the Boeing 747; and Flight Engineer Kuo-Pin Wei, age 55, with approximately 15,500 hours of flight time, including 4,363 hours on the Boeing 747. Because this is such a long journey, we have two relief flight crew members onboard as well: relief Captain Chien-Yuan Liao, age 53, and Relief Flight Engineer Shih-Lung Su, age 41.

Flight 006 departed Taipei at 4:22 local time, and ten hours later, the plane is sailing on autopilot high above the Pacific Ocean at 41,000 feet (or 12,500 meters). At this point in the flight, the relief crew members have taken over and are at the controls. Captain Ho, the main captain, has tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep, but he is unable to do so. Restless after just two hours of sleep, he returns to the cockpit and takes a seat in the chair reserved usually for the First Officer and keeps the relief team company until the main First Officer and Flight Engineer return to duty. 

By now, Flight 006 is about 330 miles (or 530 kilometers) off the western coast of the United States, heading toward its final destination in California. And after taking a five-hour break, the rest of the remaining primary flight crew rejoins Captain Ho in the cockpit.

China Airlines Flight 006 Encounters Light Turbulence and Presumed Engine Problems Ten Hours into Flight 

Flight 006 soon encounters some light headwinds, making the ride a little bumpier at this time, and Captain Ho announces to the cabin that the seatbelt sign will be turned on and passengers should return to their seats. 

As is customary midflight, the plane’s autopilot is engaged, and its job is to ensure the plane maintains its airspeed. However, the light clear air turbulence makes it harder for the plane to maintain its speed, and it begins to fluctuate between 251 and 264 knots (or between 280 and 300 mph) as the plane’s auto throttle system struggles to keep up with the varying airspeeds. 

And this is when the situation gets tricky. At one point, the auto throttle system brings the engines to almost zero thrust. As the airspeed then decreases, the thrust to all the engines comes back on – except for the number four engine. Observing this, Flight Engineer Wei informs the captain about the problem with the engine. To counter the loss in thrust, the Flight Engineer moves the throttle lever manually for that engine, hoping to increase its thrust. But, the engine does not respond. And Captain Ho, from his seat, can also tell just by feel that the engine is not responding. 

Then Flight Engineer Wei has some more bad news for Captain Ho: the number four engine has now completely flamed out.  The crew wonders if this issue is related to the problems seen before on this particular engine, which the crew learned about during the pre-flight briefing. That was when Captain Ho was told that a repair crew had worked on this very engine before the flight. Not having the fourth engine at full thrust means that the plane is continuing to slow down, which is a problem. 

In response to Captain Ho’s command, Flight Engineer Wei takes out his checklist to review the engine out procedures. The captain also directs the first officer to request a lower altitude from air traffic control (or ATC) in order to allow them to descend and try and restart the engine. It was important to get lower since the maximum restart altitude for an engine on this model is 30,000 feet (or 9000 meters), and obviously, they are currently flying well above that max at 41,000 feet. 

Despite their current altitude, Captain Ho directs the flight engineer to try and relight the engine at altitude. Predictably, as there is not enough oxygen to initiate combustion, the engine restart is unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the Oakland controller responding to Flight 006’s request to descend responds with a “please stand by.” 

During this time, Captain Ho also notices that the plane’s airspeed has continued to decrease, this time to below 240 knots (or 276 mph). In an attempt to increase their airspeed, Captain Ho intentionally disconnects one of the main systems that coordinates with the autopilot to help control the plane’s pitch, and he applies a larger nose down input manually using his control column. However, this action fails to halt the continued decline in airspeed.

China Airlines Flight 006 Enters Right Roll While Crew Troubleshoots Engine, Airspeed Problems

As the airspeed continues to drop, Flight Engineer Wei is focused on the engine restart, while Captain Ho completely disengages the autopilot and pushes the nose down even further in hopes of increasing speed. Right around this time, First Officer Chang looks up from his controls and notices that the plane is in a right bank, so he tells the captain, “we are banking right.” But the captain seems to remain fixed on the declining airspeed problem. 

When Captain Ho does eventually look at his attitude director indicator (or ADI), which is a flight instrument that informs the pilot of how level the aircraft is relative to Earth's horizon, he cannot believe what he sees. As he is about to make a left-wing-down correction to counterbalance the right roll, the ADI rotates rapidly to the left and seems to tumble from there. And astonishingly, the First Officer’s ADI matches his. What this tells them is incredible: the plane is now rapidly rolling rightward. 

Over the next minute or so, the 747 continues to roll until it banks 45 degrees to the right. And, to make things even worse, the plane has now dropped to 37,000 feet (or 11,300 meters) and has veered into thick cloud cover. Captain Ho can no longer see the horizon – and as the ADI tumbles out of control, he is unsure of what attitude the plane is in (meaning, is it climbing, banking, or ascending). At the same time, Flight Engineer Weis shouts out that the other three engines have also lost thrust. 

China Airlines Flight 006 Falls Over 31,000 Feet in Less Than Three Minutes

Things begin to deteriorate quickly from there. The plane continues its right roll, passing through 90 degrees and eventually, frighteningly, flipping over onto its back until it inverts. The 747 begins to lose altitude at an alarming rate as it rolls clear over onto its roof, catching the pilots completely by surprise. The Captain and First Officer struggle desperately with the controls. 

Captain Ho pulls back on the control column, but the plane, now in a steep dive, is gaining astonishing rates of speed from the free fall – and then the unthinkable happens: the plane is screeching past its maximum speed allowable to maintain the structural integrity of the plane, which at this altitude meant 394 knots (or 453 mph). 

The speed and direction of the plane subjects everyone to a soul-crushing, face-melting 4.8 vertical G’s. Struggling against the g-forces of the fall, Flight Engineer Wei tries desperately again to restart the engines – but the gravitational forces are so strong that his head is pinned to the control pedestal, and he is unable to lift either of his arms or even turn his head.  At the same time this is unfolding, Oakland ATC notices Flight 006’s rapid descent on radar and tries contacting the crew a total of six times, but ATC gets no response. In just 33 seconds, Flight 006 plunges 10,000 feet (or 3,000 meters) as the pilots fight to regain control and try and level the plane. Captain Ho swings his control column back and forth in a futile attempt to figure out how his inputs are affecting his aircraft. 

As the plane approaches the 30,000 feet mark (or 9,000 meters), Captain Ho pulls back on the controls again and the plane rapidly and momentarily rolls back to level and begins to pull up. For a moment, the plane’s speed goes from the extreme rate of descent to a much slower speed of only 80 to 100 knots (or between 92 and 115 mph), possibly because the airplane is now in an actual stall. As the plane rights itself, the g-forces also change direction. Now passengers are pressed to the floor, feeling five times their weight. But this leveling off only lasts for a moment – then the plane rolls hard to the right and enters a second, even steeper plunge. 

Once again, as the 747 rolls inverted and races through its maximum allowable speeds, unsecured objects, crewmembers, and passengers are thrown in every direction. In the cockpit, and inside the clouds, Captain Ho and First Officer Chang have no idea which way or how much the plane is banking. 

As the plane falls now toward 19,000 feet (or about 6000 meters), it pulls up steeply with a force in excess of 5 G’s, then dives again, hurtling toward the ocean at unbelievable speeds. At this point, the extreme stress of the maneuvers begin to rip the plane apart. The force of the fall rips off the doors of the landing-gear compartment and parts of the stabilizing wings at the aircraft's tail are torn off. 

China Airlines Flight 006 Pilot Recovers from Dive with Just 9,600 Feet Remaining

Suddenly, at an altitude of 11,000 feet (or 3300 meters), Flight 006 falls through the bottom layer of the clouds and emerges out into the open air. Captain Ho immediately spots the whitecaps of the Pacific below. Spotting the horizon, finally, Captain Ho masterfully rolls the plane level, accelerates the engines, and pulls out of the dive. Mysteriously, three of four of the plane’s engines come back on and both ADIs seem to return to normal at this very same moment. And then Flight Engineer Wei successfully restarts engine four. 

The experience that Flight 006 has just had is a first of its kind. After falling 31,400 feet (or 9570 meters) in two separate dives and in less than three minutes, Flight 006 levels off at an altitude of just 9,600 feet (or almost 3000 meters) above the ocean waves, the pilots having saved the lives of all 274 occupants onboard.

Let us not minimize what Captain Ho and his flight crew achieved: when they popped out of the clouds, the plane was at 11,000 feet and just in 1,500 feet (or 450 meters), they were able to get the plane out of its aerobatic maneuvers and stabilize the plane. One aviation consultant called it a “masterpiece of flying.”

China Airlines 006 Passengers Experienced Brutal G-Forces

American Bill Peacock is a passenger onboard – and we will see the passenger cabin through his eyes. He is traveling again for work, and more specifically, for his employer, the U.S. government. Bill appeared in Time Magazine after the flight, telling his story. He said he had just finished a breakfast of Chinese beef and noodles when he felt the plane "shudder, like we were going into a mild stall." His first instinct was to return to his seat just ten feet away, but even that proved a chore. Of that he said, "The aircraft had started to turn a very hard, and there was this incredible horizontal pressure pushing my entire body to the right." 

Bill is himself a Viet Nam veteran, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and was an Assistant Secretary of the Army from 1980 to 1981. He had "flown with many a test pilot," and was able to give a vivid, technical account of what happened next. He recounted, "By the time I returned to my seat, the horizontal force was at least five Gs (five times that of gravity), making it impossible for me to fasten my seat belt . . . Then it eased up a bit to maybe one or two Gs. But the plane was continuing downward. Clearly the pilot was trying to pull up, but I didn't know how on earth he could do it. It was like being in a high-speed Porsche on an incredible turn.”

As the plane continued to dive and dive downward, Bill decided to quickly come to terms with his impending death. He was thinking, “I’ve really had a wonderful life. If this is the end, I am ready to do it.” 

After the second dive and the plane comes back under control, passengers reported that it was eerily quiet in the passenger cabin. Many said the quiet existed because, even though they were level, no one felt confident that another dive would not happen again, and this time, the dive would be fatal. The shocking truth of the ordeal can be seen and smelled across the cabin: vomit and urine fill the air along with the quiet sounds of sobbing. 

Aircraft Damaged, China Airlines Flight 006 Diverts to San Francisco 

Back at the Oakland control tower, Brian Campbell takes over from the prior controller, who informs Brian that Flight 006 fell off his radar but miraculously has just reappeared. ATC and Flight 006 finally make contact. 

In the cockpit, the mood could be described as a strange mixture of confusion and relief, and it was clear at first that the pilots had not fully processed the severity of the situation. Captain Ho initially requested a higher altitude from air traffic control so that they could get back on course and proceed to Los Angeles. However, as flight 006 climbed back away from 9,000 feet (or 2700 meters), Flight Engineer Wei discovers that the main landing gear is down and locked and would not retract, and the number one hydraulic system had lost all its fluid. Although they didn’t know the true extent of the damage, it was clear that they would need to make an emergency landing, and the crew now accepted the Oakland controller’s suggestion that they divert to San Francisco.

And now the flight crew is facing an extremely difficult landing because in addition to all the damage we talked about, the plane’s elevators do not seem to be functioning, which helps to control the plane’s altitude. Captain Ho now must land using varying amounts of engine thrust. He cannot afford to make any mistakes, as they now do not have anymore altitude to recover. This is a zero-sum game. At last, Flight 006 lands safely on the runway.

Inside the cabin, sounds of cheering and crying fill the air. Fifty passengers suffer minor injuries during the dive, and two flight attendants are hospitalized with back injuries. But no one has died. 

And once on the ground, the full extent of the plane’s damage can be seen. Parts of the entire tail section have been ripped off. The sober reality of the situation comes into full view: if the plane had experienced any further damage, nothing would have been able to pull it out of the final dive. 

NTSB Investigation Discovers Three Engines Working Properly Despite the Crew’s Accounts

And while a catastrophic disaster had been averted, investigators from the NTSB immediately wonder, what caused this catastrophe in the first place? For this answer, the NTSB analyzes both flight recorders. They quickly discover that the CVR, because it records over itself every half-hour, has not recorded the entire ordeal. Second, there is data missing from the FDR because of the extreme forces it was subjected to during the dive which caused electrical outages. But, thankfully, because of the data that is available, investigators reconstruct most of what unfolded inflight.

If we go back to the start of everything that began to go wrong ten hours into Flight 006’s course, we will remember that two things began to happen in quick succession right after they encountered some unexpected, light turbulence. First, the number four engine began to lose thrust and then flamed out, and second, the plane’s airspeed began to fall. 

Investigators know that the turbulence alone is not a contributor to engine failure or anything that would have brought about this kind of an inflight upset, therefore, they focus on possible causes of the failure of the number four engine. 

China Airlines Flight 006 Shocking Investigation: Number Four Engine “Hung,” Not “Flamed Out”

While the first three engines are found to have been working properly, they closely examine the number four engine, especially given its history of thrust problems. They discover that a small throttle valve trimmer has experienced wear equal to only four one-thousandths of an inch – but that wear damage is enough to restrict the fuel flow into engine number four. During the high-altitude flight at 41,000 feet (or 12,000 meters), the fuel flow slowed, which also weakened the thrust, causing what is known as a “hung” engine. And the same thing had happened to this same engine during the week prior to the dive. After weeks of investigating the maintenance on the engine, the NTSB determines that everything was done correctly. This means that this aspect of the engine did not cause the dive. But here is what did. 

After the number four engine seemed to flame out, the Flight Engineer tried to reignite it immediately. But, as we discussed, the plane was much too high and there was not enough oxygen to create the combustion needed to reignite the engine. The Flight Engineer next began the engine out checklist – but he skipped a crucial step in his procedures: he leaves the number four engine’s bleed air valve ON. This valve takes air generated by the engine to help the cool. When there is a problem with an engine starting, you are supposed to close this valve so that the engine uses all the available air to restart. Long story, short on the engine – it never flamed out. AND, this missed step inadvertently began a domino effect that leads to the dive. 

Investigation Finds China Airlines Flight 006 Pilots Caused Dive, Did Not Trust Their Instruments

In addition to the issue with the number four engine losing its ability to stay lit, the Captain notices a decline in airspeed, and the First Officer informs the Captain that the plane is banking to the right. Essentially, with more engine power on the left wing than on the right wing, the airplane begins turning. To prevent the plane from turning to the right, the Captain should have stepped on the rudder pedal, which would have produced a twisting force that would have overcome the power asymmetry in the engines. But instead of adjusting the rudder himself, Captain Ho keeps the plane flying in autopilot – which is designed NOT to move the rudder. It can move the plane’s ailerons and spoilers on the wings, but these flaps alone are not enough to overcome the imbalance produced by the engines. Without the additional help from the rudder, the plane banks right, and continues banking and banking. Now the plane is about to flip over completely and enter into a nosedive.  

The Captain and First Officer also noticed that their ADIs, which measure how level the plane is, began to malfunction and went beyond limits. But here is the chilling truth: the ADIs were correct and functioning normally the entire time. The flight crew thought the ADI showed their plane in such an improbable position that the ADI must be wrong. But it was showing them what was really happening to the plane at that moment. However, Captain Ho is fixated on the plane’s declining airspeed, not its attitude. And once they entered the first dive in complete cloud cover, they should have trusted what their instruments were telling them. Instead, they regarded the ADIs as failing.

Next, after thinking the ADIs were malfunctioning, the crew says that the plane began to descend even faster, and then all three other engines failed. But investigators know this cannot be true because they have examined the engines and found them to be fully operational. Investigators find that as the plane fell, it was true that the thrust to each engine declined dramatically. But not because of engine failure – but because the Captain had put the engines into idle as a way to slow the plane down. 

The Flight Engineer simply failed to observe this fact during the chaos of the dive. If he had looked behind him at the engineer’s panel, he would have been able to see that all electrical systems were functioning and the engines could not have failed, but he was physically unable to turn around because of the g-forces of the dive. 

NTSB Investigation Finds Pilots to Blame for China Airlines 006 Free-Fall

The uncomfortable truth is that the flight crew, through a series of mistakes and misinterpretations, caused the heart stopping dive of Flight 006. As Peter Garrison so succinctly put it, “The sobering thing about this remarkable mishap is that, except for four thousandths of one inch of excess wear in a fuel controller there was nothing wrong with the airplane.” 

But what is groundbreaking about the NTSB’s report is not necessarily who they blame, but the reasons investigators identified for why a highly talented, trained crew could have misinterpreted the situation so badly. 

First, the Board mentioned that jet lag was likely a key contributor affecting the performance of the flight crew. Specifically, the Captain got very little sleep during the flight and essentially missed out on any deep sleep. Second, it says very plainly that with all the automation of the 747 (and this report came out all the way back in 1985 and 1986) that a pilot’s job is reduced to “monitoring the performance of boringly reliable systems.” Why does that matter? Well, the Boad claimed, humans make terrible monitors because our brains crave variety and despise monotony. Essentially, pilots can become “stupefied by monotony.” To perform well, a pilot needs be giving commands or making control inputs and then be able to feel or see those results. 

Despite Blame, Many View China Airlines Flight 006 Pilots as Heroes 

As far as the prevailing opinion of how the pilots were perceived as either heroes or the ones to blame for the accident, one aviation consultant said this, “The one big thing they did right – and one only ever has to do one big thing – is they saved the airplane. You need to save the airplane and you need to save the passengers, and that’s what they did.” Passenger Bill Peacock agrees. He said in an interview, “The pilot saved our lives. He got us into it, but he got us out of it.”

And let us not forget the aircraft itself, which endured forces and aerobatic maneuvers that exceeded anything it was supposed to withstand. Despite that, its structure ultimately shielded the 274 people inside from certain doom. 

After repairs were made to the plane, it returned to service later that same year. It continued in service for nearly 12 years and even flew for a while as a missionary plane. As of 2010, the aircraft has been stored in a large hangar at an airport in Tijuana, Baja California, and is reported to be in very poor condition. Not a very dignified ending for an airplane that accomplished such a feat. 

And THAT is the frightening and intense story of China Airlines Flight 006.

Show Notes:

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Credits:

Written and produced by: Shelly Price and Stephanie Hubka
Directed and engineered at: Snow Monster Studios
Sound editor: Podcast Engineers
Producer: Adam Hubka
Music by: Mike Dunn
China Airlines Flight 006

Diagram of the plane’s roll according to the NTSB data, courtesy of the NTSB. Source: Wikipedia

China Airlines Flight 006

The actual accident airplane. Source: thisdayinaviation.com

China Airlines Flight 006

Illustration of what China Airlines Flight 006 looked like as it rolled. Source: airlive.net

China Airlines Flight 006

The damaged plane that was China Airlines Flight 006. Source: Admiral Cloudberg with credit to Code 7700

China Airlines Flight 006

Captain Min-Yuan Ho, describing the incident to reporters at San Francisco Airport, February 1985. Source: thisdayinaviation.com