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March 25, 2011

The Clock Is Ticking: Inside the Cockpit of a Japan-Bound Airliner During the Quake

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Written by: Justin Schlechter
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Writer’s Note: This article is a reaction piece to the events that were posted online by a Delta pilot detailing the events surrounding the diversion of an aircraft as a result of the tragic earthquake in Japan. The intention of this article is not to critique the actions of the crew, nor to be a Monday morning quarterback. Rather, this piece is meant to truly bring the reader into the cockpit during what must have been a stressful time. To be clear, I do not have any idea what actually went on in the cockpit in terms of procedures, conversation, or thought. The description of events in this article that unfold in the cockpit ARE NOT what actually happened. They are simply what I, in my professional opinion, imagine might have occurred.

The front office a B767-300 can get hectic in a hurry no matter how skilled the pilots in the seats may be. (Photo by Brian Futterman)

You have finally made it. After a lifetime of working so hard in the aviation world, you have finally made it to the coveted left seat of an international widebody airliner. Time to kickback, relax, and cash that first international captain paycheck! Life couldn’t be better.

You are barely a month out of training, still wet behind the ears and getting accustomed to life on the line being the boss. You have noticed that flying internationally presents its own unique circumstances that a typical domestic pilot isn’t used to such as position reports, flying in a non-radar environment, CPDLC (pilot to ATC text messaging), new countries, and the ever difficult task of decoding the multitude of different accents on each of the routes you fly.

As you sit in your perch above the Pacific Ocean, you think life is good. With a sip of your coffee you begin to brief the arrival into Tokyo a little earlier than normal, as it is your first time operating here as a Captain. Tokyo has its demands like every airport, but today the weather is good, and the arrival should not present any abnormal situations. The co-pilots that you are working with today have been here before and brief you on all the serious nuances that this airport presents. They tell you that it is not atypical to get holding this time of day when all of the other airliners from North America arrive after long, ten plus hour flights. They tell you about the heinous conditions that can confront the airport on occasions resulting in incredibly strong wind-shear conditions and rain. They make sure you see the little note on the approach chart for Runway 34L that tells you to lower the gear before 14DME so that ice blocks don’t fall from the landing gear to the ground below you.

You are satisfied that you are all properly briefed and with the push of a button, the B767-300ER starts its descent into Tokyo. Things are progressing normally when out of nowhere you are instructed by air traffic control (ATC) to expect holding for Narita. As previously discussed, this is probably due to traffic but it doesn’t matter. Hearing the word “Hold” in the cockpit of an airliner is like saying “sit” to a well trained dog. You get an automatic shifting of mindset and procedure that entails that you spring to action. You automatically begin thinking of all of your contingencies. You begin slowing the aircraft and figuring out how much fuel you have and how long you can hold for. You start to look at your alternates in case you get down to a fuel critical situation. Just that simple word, “Hold”, gets the attention of all three crewmembers and results in the beginning of some serious work. It is O.K. though, because this is just because of some traffic congestion today. In just a few minutes you will be released from the hold and before you know it you will be eating a bowl of Ramen at an excellent little noodle shop the first officers have told you about during the flight! Or so you think.

As you and the crew figure out the length of time you can hold for, a chime rings out in the cockpit indicating an ACARS message from Flight Operations in Atlanta. They have advised you that a large earthquake has hit Japan and that Narita is temporarily closed but should open relatively soon. You have assessed the fuel load and have determined that you have approximately two hours of hold fuel, however, being proactive you don’t want to sit up here for two hours and have no options. To further complicate the issue, ATC has advised that you can expect indefinite holding for Narita. You ask the copilot to request clearance to Haneda, the alternate airport for the flight. Before he can get a word in, a multitude of other airlines begin requesting reroutes and diversions as well. This is not good. For an airline pilot, when conditions start to go south, you want to ideally be the first to head to the diversion airport as that will fill up and get congested very quickly.

You have the relief pilot start to figure out some alternate diversion airports in the event we cannot make it into Haneda. The air traffic controllers are being inundated with requests from everyone and advises that Haneda is closed as well. The next best option is to head south towards the cities of Osaka and Nagoya. Both are large, modern airports that are more then equipped to handle a B767. If one of those closes, surely the other will be available, you think to yourself. You request a reroute and are given a clearance to Osaka. Time for another assessment of the fuel. All is well, although the fuel is decreasing you still have more than enough to get to Osaka and have plenty of reserve fuel.


About the Author

Justin Schlechter



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