Written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake...
For all my friends that think we sit up front doing the crossword!
A good read.
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
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
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"
<<< Top Gun movie quote <<<
"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 to 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.