Delta pilot recounts overwhelmed Japanese ATC on day of earthquake

Delta 767
A Delta 767-400ER departs London Heathrow. Photograph: AirSpace user apgphoto

A Delta pilot has recounted what it was like to navigate air space while attempting to land a 767 in Japan on the day of the earthquake earlier this month, according to a story that is making the rounds on the web. The pilot’s 767 was due to land at Tokyo Narita when he was put in a hold. With nearly two hours of spare fuel, the Delta flight was not a priority for ATC, unlike other flights that were running low on the fuel.

The pilot tells how after Tokyo Narita closed Japanese ATC directed aircraft to relatively nearby Tokyo Haneda and then announced that airport was also closed. A scramble started to other airports, including Nagoya and Osaka, both south of Tokyo. Those airports became overwhelmed, as did an air force base that apparently ran out of room.

The 767 pilot looked at other air force bases before a company message asked him to consider Chitose airport where other Delta flights were diverting to. Chitose was the charm and the flight landed–but only after declaring a fuel emergency to ensure it arrived safely. The pilot’s story ends on the ground where it apparently took nine hours to get a set of stairs to the aircraft to unload.

The full story is below.

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” <<< top gun 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.


, , , ,

6 Responses to Delta pilot recounts overwhelmed Japanese ATC on day of earthquake

  1. TigerTiger 22 March, 2011 at 8:07 am #

    Sound like BS to me. Another “true” story doing the rounds like the fake radiation hoaxes. Did you bother checking out whether it was true before you posted, or doesn’t that count any more?

  2. Will Horton 22 March, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    In the absence of being able to readily verify a story (and hence the disclaimer at the start of the post) as not only would that entail finding a Delta pilot, there is no guarantee the pilot in question would admit to writing it in fear of reprisal since the story, originally meant for a small group of people, has become mainstream, what is necessary to do is judge the content.

    The content is reasonable and not outlandish, such as the radiation hoaxes you mention.

    Additionally, elements of the story are verified by others, such as one of the Delta 747-400s that also diverted to Chitose and the long wait to de-plane.

    If you have specific concerns, we do appreciate them and you should feel free to raise them.

  3. Stephen Watson 27 March, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    As a “non-airline” pilot, the Delta crew’s thought processes and concerns as the whole disaster unfolded, is fascinating. Continuing to fly while your fuel supply dwindles is a very stressful situation. A friend of mine was right-seated in a Delta 767 coming back to the U. S. On 9/11. He and his captain landed along with 38-odd airline crews of various carriers in Gander, New Foundland. I do not imagine that aby of those pilots will ever forget the disaster that affected their flight–9/11 or the tsunami in Japan. I appreciated the pilot’s post.

  4. Will Horton 9 April, 2011 at 2:48 am #

    Hey Ben,

    We’ve left the pilot’s story as he wrote it. Given his circumstance and maybe jet lag too, some mistakes here and there are okay in my book. :)


  5. Paulo M 12 April, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Nice account – obviously amidst great tragedy, thanks for passing it on.

  6. Dash 23 April, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    For all the nay sayers…..I know this pilot personally. This is true and is an accurate depiction of the chaos the Japanese experienced in their futile attempts to get planes safely on the ground. Always remember the 1st rule of aviation….The controller is in his nice comfy chair with his biggest care of how he will pay the mortgage…When it all go’s to hell it is up to the pilot(s) to get the plane safely on the ground. CFR 14 91.3…remember it!

Leave a Reply