Friday, March 18, 2011

Boarding During an Earthquake

I had this forwarded to me without a name. It's a first hand account by a Delta Airlines captain whose flight was boarding at Narita when the 8.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan.

We were at the gate onboard ship 7001 with passenger boarding in progress when the earthquake began. My F/O, Joe Haggerty, had taken his seat and I was standing behind the center radio console when the airplane began shaking. Initially thought it was wind gusts but ruled that out since it had been calm when we left the hotel. Jet blast from a taxiing aircraft? Nope, look, the terminal windows are flexing and the building is...moving! It's an earthquake...immediately, in a brilliant display of airmanship, Joe reached over and set the parking brake. It seemed quite possible that we could jump our wheel chocks and roll into something hard. After a minute of this, the shaking got much worse and lasted about 2 1/2 minutes total. Our passengers intuitively decided that the safest place in all of this was on the aircrart and not in the terminal or the jetway. Never seen 261 people board a 777 so quickly! Two long and impressive aftershocks followed during the next hour. Narita closed it's runways and our inbound flights began diverting. 281 from Atlanta was about 10 minutes from landing and diverted to Nagoya. Hanada and Narita were both closed. They evacuated everyone from the Narita terminals deeming the structures unsafe for occupancy. The Narita tower was evacuated, Narita Approach Control was evacuated. At about 4pm, the airport was notam'd closed "until 0600 tomorrow morning". So, Delta cancelled us and all of the other flights out of Narita.

Well.........there was only one "safe area" established at the airport (outside in a cold rain) where passengers could be taken if they deplaned. It became full. There was no chance of deplaning into the terminal. No chance of deplaning at all. No ground transportation as all busses and trains were shut down and the highways had been closed. So, Delta calls the Narita Airport Authority and suggests that since the runway had been inspected, it might be a real good idea to allow 6 Delta departures and get maybe 1,400 customers out of this mess. They agreed and after a four hour wait at the gate, we got out of there. On departure we could see four distinct, large fires in downtown Tokyo, 50 miles to the south. A refinery was on fire at the coastline to our east. We had no real idea of the size of the disaster until we had a datalink discussion with our dispatcher who filled us in. Now, watching the news at home, I am stunned at the devastation. All Delta crews and employees are safe and uninjured in Japan. I am not sure if the layover hotel has power. I'm glad I'm not in room 932 anymore with the aftershocks that they are getting.

Happy to be home and thanks for your concern.

It's weird when you're on the ground and the airplane is moving in a way you haven't commanded it. I remember the first time I couldn't taxi straight in wind, and can see why that was the captain's first impression.


Cedarglen said...

Wow! I am glad that you posted this and it is a shame that the Captain's name is not attached. Added thoughts: When one holds the Captain's seat, is is still about flight safety, first, but also about the more genereral welfare of (261?) sould plus crew. Since this flight was already fueled, provisioned and undamaged, holding thos PAX in Japan would have been foolish. A good choice on the Captain's part to PUSH (puns OK)was pn the mark. His load is complete, he has enough fuel and even without some ATC services, CAN reach enrout ATC and get over the Pacific with minimal inconvenience. With 261 PAX plus crew ready to go, is the sole consideration only the runway condition? Perhaps maybe -- But May Not! Is the aircraft fully functional? Is the captain forced to fly with some MEL items? I have to believe that This Flight was in Great Shape to go, as long as the runway was safe. Getting 261+ well sould OUT of a bad environment, as quickly as possible, we a very smart move on the Captain's part as well as his dispatchers'. If she was experienced and already knew the way and had working HF radio gear, one could easily argue that he would be justified in making a Declared Take-Off Run, even without clearance, IF... he had reason to believe that the runway was intact. It is a VERY tough call, but the go, no-go is always the Captain's choice, even if he pisses-off the local ATC folks. In the end, DELTA won this round, a;though the Captain my be briefly faulted. He used his experience, made the choice and got 261 PAX, plus his crew out of a bad situation. Some will legitimately disagree. Some know more details that we know. With the given information, the Captain was smart to bug-out as soon as he knew that the runway was servicable. If he had stayed, where would those 261 souls, plus a large crew be today? Perhaps, still stuck in Japan. If the Captain had good reason to believe that he could complete the trip - or divert to some unaffected area enroute - I think his GO choice was a damn good more. -C.

Jim said...

Agreed with all that was said, but there are one other set of considerations, namely: What happens if something goes wrong?

If they over-run on the takeoff and need to go into a ditch, are emergency services still available?

Similarly if they launch successfully but then need to return (passenger sickness, airworthiness of the bird, etc), will their be appropriate ground support services for the emergency return.

Flying anything (and therefore training to fly anything) is mostly about anticipating and handling the stuff which does not go right.

Ed said...

Another consideration might be aftershocks during the take-off roll? I'm not sure what effect they might have but can't help thinking that suddenly moving the runway a metre sideways anywhere near tyre limit speeds can't be completely kind.

Here's another means of high-speed transport in a relatively flimsy tube which would be a bit concerning in an earthquake: bullet train account.

Cedarglen said...

Reply to Jim's comment: Yes, good sir, you are correct. Support (read: Emergency) services may well be limited. That's sort of why I mentioned the fully functional airplane and no MEL isuses; it just improves the odds. In the end, it is still the Captain's decision and s/he makes it based on a whole lot of input. Since take-off related events are so rare, the Captain MAY be willing to just get his cargo of self-loading freight Out of Dodge (city) before sundown. I cannot fault him/her, either way. -C.

majroj said...

Old fashioned gyros may have locked with a prolonged sharp shock (Pink Floyd unreference) during taxi or takeoff roll, but GPS will not.