Aviation News

March 25, 2011

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

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By: Justin Schlechter
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The front office a B767-300 can get hectic in a hurry no matter how skilled the pilots in the seats. (Photo by Brian Futterman)
The front office a B767-300 can get hectic in a hurry no matter how skilled the pilots in the seats. (Photo by Brian Futterman)
As you continue towards the new destination you can hear United, Air Canada, Continental, and other company aircraft all scurrying to other airports from the Tokyo area. You and the crew are at ease again knowing that you will be on the ground shortly. Unfortunately, ATC did not get the memo. You are advised that due to diversions both Osaka and Nagoya are closed! State your intentions! Now you are in a very serious situation. The relief pilot is already looking up other options and getting new weather reports. He is on top of his game! As this is happening, you hear a few other airliners are in a state of emergency! Numerous aircraft are declaring fuel emergencies and being vectored to military bases. You decide to proceed back north towards Yokota Air Force Base but are told that is closed as well!

Delta Air Lines Boeing 767

(Photo by Phil Derner, Jr.)

Now this situation is starting to truly get serious. At this point you know you have the option of declaring a fuel emergency as well, but you are not quite at that point yet. Despite the long distance to fly back north towards Tokyo, you and the crew make a final decision to divert to Misawa Air Force Base. That is it. No matter what we are going to Misawa. We have the fuel and as of now it is open. The other flight crew members are happy with this and you proceed towards the new alternate.

What the passengers don’t see are the lumps that have been in the throats of all three crewmembers or the changed reactions due to the elevated stress levels the pilots are facing. Behind the cockpit door, all is well in the cabin. With a new, final game plan, and enough fuel to do it, the stress level slowly decreases in the cockpit. You have the relief pilot advise Atlanta via ACARS that you are proceeding towards Misawa when they decide to throw one more curveball.

Atlanta has requested that you see if you can continue to Sapporo, Japan and make a landing at Chitose Airport on Hokkaido Island. In concurrence with the other first officers you determine that this is possible with absolutely no other delays or holding, but barely.

The Delta captain’s article very clearly explains the thought process for his decision:

As we approached Misawa we got clearance to continue to Chitose. Critical decision thought process. Let’s see – trying to help company – plane overflies perfectly good divert airport for one farther away…wonder how that will look in the safety report, if anything goes wrong.

This clearly shows what this flight crew was thinking. Do you land at a safe, non-commercially preferred military base with excess gas, or stretch it to make a company airfield in hopes that nothing goes wrong? This Captain, on the definite concurrence of his crew decided to push on one last time. Had any crewmember at this point raised an objection, they would have simply landed at Misawa.

Delta Air Lines Boeing 767s

(Photo by Mario J. Craig)

Back on the flight deck, the decision has been made to continue to Chitose. You cannot accept any delays due to the now dwindling fuel supply. You WILL be landing now matter what. However, once again Air Traffic Control has other plans for you. You are once again of advised of indefinite holding. The hell with that you think. You advise ATC that you are declaring a fuel emergency and that you cannot accept any delays. Magically, ATC clears you direct to Sapporo. After zigzagging north and south along the country side of Japan and burning tons of precious Jet-A you finally extend the landing gear and land on Runway 01R.

As you taxi in to the gate all three of you breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing you are safely on the ground. You have just about an hour’s worth of fuel left in the tanks, not much. The heart rates slow and gradually you all are relaxed again. The only issue now is that there is no gate to park at as there are numerous other airlines that have diverted here as well. That is the least of your concern as you taxi to a spot on the ramp, shut down the engines and advise the passengers to sit tight and that it is going to be a while until you can disembark. A whole new nightmarish scenario is awaiting you as you will have to deal with sitting on the ground for approximately nine hours before that is allowed to happen. For this new Captain, I’m sure the events that unfolded on this day are more than enough to keep you satisfied with abnormal events for a long time to come.


On the afternoon of March 11th, this exact scenario began to unfold in the cockpit of a Delta Airlines Boeing 767-300ER inbound to Tokyo. The Captain was a relatively new one, having only been online in the left seat for about one month. This was his first trip to the Pacific Rim in the left seat. It is not clear from his write up if he had been to Japan before. The events that began to unfold were the perfect ingredients that airline training departments build LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) scenarios around. LOFT scenarios are simulator events that are typically constructed using an actual flight that has had some sort of “event” and the result is the trainees have to handle the scenario and land safely. In this case, the “event” was the massive earthquake and the resultant actions taken by the crew to get the aircraft onto the ground safely. The crew was faced with a multitude of options, a decreasing fuel load, minimal information, and an unfamiliar area of the world. The environment on the flight deck was no doubt, quite stressful.

Weight-on-wheels is a great feeling, because "It’s better to be down here wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were down here." (Photo by Eric Dunetz)

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time that multiple flight crews are confronted with an extreme scenario of a massive catastrophe causing mass diversions. The most obvious other example would be the events of 9/11 and the mandatory closure of US Airspace resulting in hundreds of diverted airliners to all parts of the world. Some landed in Canada, some landed in Greenland, and many others simply diverted back to Europe. What the public sees are the pictures of hundreds of airplanes stacked wingtip to wingtip down the available taxiways and runways that had been turned into parking lots. What they don’t see is the call to action that goes on in the front of the ship when a crew is faced with a rapidly changing situation, especially when they are not provided with a lot of information and when the fuel supply is dwindling.

For the crew of the Delta flight going into Japan, the timing of the event could not have been worse as they were nearing the end of a ten hour trans-pacific flight. They were at a relatively low fuel state and were presented with limited options. Taking into account all of the external factors that affected the flight, this crew handled this situation as well as any crew could be asked to. They stayed calm, made good decisions based on their current fuel state and when they were finally backed into a corner, made the ultimate decision that no matter what, they would be landing. That is why it is called Captain’s Authority. Sometimes it needs to be used and this was a textbook time to use it. Kudos to the flight crew for a job well done. Like they say in aviation, you typically earn your salary on one flight a year, and this was definitely it.

NYCAviation Columnist Justin Schlechter is a First Officer for a major international airline. You can read more of his writing on his Positive Rate blog.

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