Thought provoking,

David Morton

Lifetime Supporter
Subject: Delta Pilot landing after Earthquake in Japan

st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#default#ieooui)}

This is quite thought provoking.

Something the general public have no idea goes on. I bet there were lots of very concerned aviators in the sky that day which was a bloody good day to be bowling!

A friend of a friend wrote this from Japan shortly after the earthquake. A good read!

Hi Mike,

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

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"

Randy V

Staff member
Lifetime Supporter
Holy smokes!!!!

There's a million stories out there but this one is really one for the books.. I did not think of all the air-traffic enroute having already crossed the ocean...

That's quite an insight into the decision loop of a professional pilot in a situation that was completely unforeseeable. Their crew coordination must have been phenomenal.
I remember reading a CVR from a 707 accident where the crew didn't notify the controller that they were min fuel until a few minutes before they flamed out on approach. But I don't remember why they waited so long. David, do you know the one I'm thinking about?

Pete McCluskey.

Lifetime Supporter
Conversely you can get into serious shit for declaring an emergency unnecessarily. Thought provoking indeed David, thanks for posting.
That's quite an insight into the decision loop of a professional pilot in a situation that was completely unforeseeable. Their crew coordination must have been phenomenal.
I remember reading a CVR from a 707 accident where the crew didn't notify the controller that they were min fuel until a few minutes before they flamed out on approach. But I don't remember why they waited so long. David, do you know the one I'm thinking about?
Yes, Malcom Gladwell wrote about it in the book Outliers:

Outliers: the story of success - Google Books

David Morton

Lifetime Supporter
John and Kevin,
Was that the one that ended up in John MacEnroe's back garden on Long Island? After that the controllers were super sensitive to anybody declaring any emergency at all - as we did once inbound to JFK with a medical emergency and we went from about Number 25 to land (About another 40 minutes) to being Number 1 to land and to the point where they cancelled our BA Concorde departing as we were landing in the opposite direction and he actually went back on stand to take on more fuel. It was one of our hosties who was having a miscarriage.
Yes, Avianca Flight 52 hit a deck of a residence when they went down on final to JFK. I found a link to the NTSB accident report and the cockpit recording . It's an interesting parallel--and dramatic contrast.

ASN Aircraft accident Boeing 707-321B HK-2016 Cove Neck, NY

Aviation Safety Network > Accident investigation > CVR / FDR > Transcripts > CVR transcript Avianca Flight 052 - 25 JAN 1990

This is taken from an IFR Magazine article on emergencies by Paul Bertorell
"FAR 91.3, which describes the pilot in command's authority, is relatively succinct: "In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule... to the extent required to meet the emergency." If a deviation does occur, the pilot may be asked to submit a written report to the FAA. The reg doesn't say the pilot has to declare an emergency in order to deviate; it just allows him or her to do what's necessary to meet the emergency. Similarly, FAR 91.75 allows deviation from an ATC clearance but it permits ATC to ask for a detailed report within 48 hours if priority is given."

David Morton

Lifetime Supporter
Situational awareness was sorely lacking throughout. I guess thats why in BA and BALPA we used to have lists of airlines 'never to fly with' and this was one. China Airlines springs to mind as well.

Remind's me when 9/11 was happening, all international flights to the US were redirected, Yellowknife to Gander lookeded like aircraft parking lots. At least the ground wasn't shaking here then. The logistics involved in redirecting so many aircraft baffles me.

Thanks for the post. Thought provoking indeed!

As a normal, boring passenger, one forgets the turmoil that goes on in these kinds of situations.

Very much like a duck... All quiet on the top, with a ton of energy being expended in the engine room. It's easy to forget how professional these guys are....