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Inbound To NRT Before The Quake

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Staff member
Apr 12, 2010
Reaction score
From: a Delta Pilot who was there:

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 Haneda, near
Tokyo, a half dozen JAL and western planes got clearance in that direction but
Then ATC announced Haneda 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 Yokota AFB. I threw my hat in
the ring for that initially. The answer - Yokota 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
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
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.

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