Saturday, March 19, 2011

Landing During an Earthquake

I have another anonymous, much forwarded piece from a pilot who was operating in Japan during the earthquake. This one is also from a Delta pilot, identified as "J.D." It complements the other, as s/he was landing at the time. Note that if any of the pilots involved in these stories wants to be credited by name or to have the story removed, just let me know. I think they are fascinating examples of the kind of can't-plan-for-it decision making that flying entails. This is edited only in that I removed the part where the writer pointed out the Top Gun reference, because the punctuation involved broke my html, and you guys don't need that sort of thing pointed out for you.

I'm currently still in one piece, writing from my room in the Narita crew hotel. It's 8am. This is my inaugural trans-pacific trip as a brand new, recently checked out, international 767 Captain and it has been interesting, to say the least, so far. I've crossed the Atlantic three times so far so the ocean crossing procedures were familiar.

By the way, stunning scenery flying over the Aleutian Islands. Everything was going fine until 100 miles out from Tokyo and in the descent for arrival. The first indication of any trouble was that Japan air traffic control started putting everyone into holding patterns. At first we thought it was usual congestion on arrival. Then we got a company data link message advising about the earthquake, followed by another stating Narita airport was temporarily closed for inspection and expected to open shortly (the company is always so positive).

From our perspective things were obviously looking a little different. The Japanese controller's anxiety level seemed quite high and he said expect "indefinite" holding time. No one would commit to a time frame on that so I got my copilot and relief pilot busy looking at divert stations and our fuel situation, which, after an ocean crossing is typically low.

It wasn't long, maybe ten minutes, before the first pilots started requesting diversions to other airports. Air Canada, American, United, etc. all reporting minimal fuel situations. I still had enough fuel for 1.5 to 2.0 hours of holding. Needless to say, the diverts started complicating the situation.

Japan air traffic control then announced Narita was closed indefinitely due to damage. Planes immediately started requesting arrivals into Haneada, near Tokyo, a half dozen JAL and western planes got clearance in that direction but then ATC announced Haenada had just closed. Uh oh! Now instead of just holding, we all had to start looking at more distant alternatives like Osaka, or Nagoya.

One bad thing about a large airliner is that you can't just be-pop into any little airport. We generally need lots of runway. With more planes piling in from both east and west, all needing a place to land and several now fuel critical ATC was getting over-whelmed. In the scramble, and without waiting for my fuel to get critical, I got my flight a clearance to head for Nagoya, fuel situation still okay. So far so good. A few minutes into heading that way, I was "ordered" by ATC to reverse course. Nagoya was saturated with traffic and unable to handle more planes (read- airport full). Ditto for Osaka.

With that statement, my situation went instantly from fuel okay, to fuel minimal considering we might have to divert a much farther distance. Multiply my situation by a dozen other aircraft all in the same boat, all making demands requests and threats to ATC for clearances somewhere. Air Canada and then someone else went to "emergency" fuel situation. Planes started to heading for air force bases. The nearest to Tokyo was Yokoda AFB. I threw my hat in the ring for that initially. The answer - Yokoda closed! no more space.

By now it was a three ring circus in the cockpit, my copilot on the radios, me flying and making decisions and the relief copilot buried in the air charts trying to figure out where to go that was within range while data link messages were flying back and forth between us and company dispatch in Atlanta. I picked Misawa AFB at the north end of Honshu island. We could get there with minimal fuel remaining. ATC was happy to get rid of us so we cleared out of the maelstrom of the Tokyo region. We heard ATC try to send planes toward Sendai, a small regional airport on the coast which was later the one I think that got flooded by a tsunami.

Atlanta dispatch then sent us a message asking if we could continue to Chitose airport on the Island of Hokkaido, north of Honshu. Other Delta planes were heading that way. More scrambling in the cockpit - check weather, check charts, check fuel, okay. We could still make it and not be going into a fuel critical situation ... if we had no other fuel delays. 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.

Suddenly ATC comes up and gives us a vector to a fix well short of Chitose and tells us to standby for holding instructions. Nightmare realized. Situation rapidly deteriorating. After initially holding near Tokyo, starting a divert to Nagoya, reversing course back to Tokyo then to re-diverting north toward Misawa, all that happy fuel reserve that I had was vaporizing fast. My subsequent conversation, paraphrased of course...., went something like this:

"Sapparo Control - Delta XX requesting immediate clearance direct to Chitose, minimum fuel, unable hold."

"Negative Ghost-Rider, the Pattern is full"

"Sapparo Control - make that - Delta XX declaring emergency, low fuel, proceeding direct Chitose"

"Roger Delta XX, understood, you are cleared direct to Chitose, contact Chitose approach....etc...."

Enough was enough, I had decided to preempt actually running critically low on fuel while in another indefinite holding pattern, especially after bypassing Misawa, and played my last ace...declaring an emergency. The problem with that is now I have a bit of company paperwork to do but what the heck.

As it was - landed Chitose, safe, with at least 30 minutes of fuel remaining before reaching a "true" fuel emergency situation. That's always a good feeling, being safe. They taxied us off to some remote parking area where we shut down and watched a half dozen or more other airplanes come streaming in. In the end, Delta had two 747s, my 767 and another 767 and a 777 all on the ramp at Chitose. We saw two American airlines planes, a United and two Air Canada as well. Not to mention several extra Al Nippon and Japan Air Lines planes.

Post-script - 9 hours later, Japan air lines finally got around to getting a boarding ladder to the plane where we were able to get off and clear customs. - that however, is another interesting story.

By the way - while writing this - I have felt four additional tremors that shook the hotel slightly - all in 45 minutes.

I can so empathize with the successive feelings of "yep, we're good on fuel ... okay we've got enough fuel ... if anything else happens we won't have enough fuel ... let me get on the ground now! now! now! ... phew we're on the ground with fuel in the tanks." You are always balancing the desire to please the company, ATC and passengers against the desire to land with lots of yummy delicious extra fuel. Pilots think about fuel the way broke people think about money: all the time.


pat said...

interesting but kind of shocking.
Is declaring a "false emergency" legal?
What if an aircraft was in a real emergency situation?

Looks surprising to me, but I'm only a sunday pilot.

D.B. said...

Yes, it's legal. Anyone can declare an emergency for any reason. But then you have to justify it to the FAA and in this case, to the Company. In this case, I think Delta will be happy that their airplane got down safely, and Japanese ATC too busy to care.

Evan said...

You declare an emergency before it becomes an emergency. Otherwise, it's too late.

Echojuliet said...

thanks for posting these stories, Aviatrix. Its good to think through what other people do in a crazy situation in the event that I find myself in a similar situation one day.

nec Timide said...

No question in my mind that landing with minimum fuel +30 minutes is an emergent situation when potetial landing sites are dissapearing that rapidly.

Aviatrix said...

It's not a false emergency. It's a real one. An emergency is a situation where if something doesn't go right quickly, there's a good chance people will die. A B767 with forty-five minutes of fuel on board and being asked to enter an indefinite hold is in an emergency situation.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing these two very interesting accounts. They explain exactly what aircraft captaincy is about. My thoughts are with all those affected the horrendous events of March 11.

My thoughts are also with those heading for the Med. BBC TV News has just shown Canadian F-18 heading out of EGPK, together with a supporting A310, following a night-stop. Our UK Typhoon and Tornado aircraft are also on their way - stay safe.


Cedarglen said...

I am sure that The Company is not going to give the Captain any grief for declaring his Emergency. He had already played through the reaonsable options and it was time to put it on hard, if shakey ground. A cautious Captain is a senior Captain - someday. -C.

Anonymous said...

A question, if I may:

You declared an "emergency". I know that "declaring an emergency" is very common among pilots who want to declare emergency, but is it not unclear?
I mean - is "emergency" a distress ("Mayday") or an "urgency" ("Pan-Pan")? The AIM says it's either of the two (6-1-2). Shouldn't a pilot be clear as to what they are declaring?

I understand the ATC probably took it as distress and that the situation described might not be the best time for a phraseology lesson, but my question is whether "by the book", shouldn't a pilot be clear as to the type of emergency being declared?

I'm not an airline pilot, merely a private pilot working on his commercial, so I'm here to learn, not to preach.

GPS_Direct said...


It's not so much the phrases - Mayday or Pan-Pan. And I'm fairly certain the Captain (big C) didn't use either. Those phrases are meant to get the attention of ATC right now as opposed to stating intentions.

Here, the Captain would have just said, "Delta XXX is declaring an emergency fuel situation." No need for Mayday or Pan-Pan. By doing so, he gets ATC to give him priority handling, while also giving an "out" to bust any regs needed to get the airplane on the ground. Though, as mentioned above, doing so for the wrong reasons can put you in a pinch with Company and the FAA.

Anonymous said...

GPS Direct:
I may have not conveyed my point clearly enough, so allow me to re-state.

The AIM states two different levels of emergency for pilots to use - distress and urgency. They indicate different things. When declaring emergency, should we not be specific and indicate which of those we're referring to?

Counter example (note how the pilot added "Mayday" to each call to indicate to everyone there's a plane in distress on the frequency).

majroj said...

An example of why you need more than bare bones, rookie ATC'ers.

What will LAX do when this happens to them?

(Actually, LA is in a better position than Japan because it is not an island. However, a surprising number of LAX's local long strips are near major faults, like Torrance and Long Beach. LAX is straddled by fault scarps. USAFB's like March [no longer active military] and Edwards [active and busy] might need to open up to civilians).

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a ride ... how did the captain get from Chitose to the crew hotel in Narita? [BTW - it is Yokota AB, not AFB ... the word 'force' is not allowed in overseas base names - some fear of irritating the locals]

Aviatrix said...

The text is verbatim from the account sent to me, so for once I'm not to blame for any inaccuracies.

GPS_Direct said...

I meant to respond to Anon and forgot...

That YouTube clip is from the UK; do they (and Canada) have different rules? In the US, I don't recall ever hearing an airplane amend their callsign to "Mayday 474 Bravo" or "Mayday 2091." Once you've given the Mayday and declared an emergency, they usually clear the frequency and use the standard callsign.

Aviatrix said...

The rule in Canada is to keep on saying Mayday at the beginning of the transmission, but I can't recall ever hearing anyone say "Mayday" even once. The wording is more like, "uh ... tower, XYZ returning immediate landing due to engine failure ... left engine, negative fire ... let you know SOB in a few."

Sometimes ATC needs to hear you say it and prompts, "XYZ, are you declaring an emergency?" but usually they work it out for themselves.