(November 2011) Opening scene: Inside a B777 cockpit approximately 250 miles off the eastern coastline of Japan. The first officer is massaging the right touch pad of the display unit with his index finger. The cursor arrow hovers in the vicinity of the emergency checklist page now shown on the lower EICAS (engine instrument and crew alerting system) screen.
Captain: Let’s go to the checklist.
First officer: Uh … which one?
Captain: You know … the unannunciated checklist. Earthquake approach and landing checklist.
Yup, I can hear the snickering. Even if you’ve never stepped foot into a 777 cockpit, you are well aware that there is no such animal. And that’s exactly my point.
No procedure exists. No simulator is programmed. And none of the world’s ATC systems is truly prepared. But on March 10, 2011, airline crews from almost every corner of the globe were tested to the limit of their decision-making capabilities.
I was fortunate to have discussed the event with one of my airline’s crews. Its flight was but one example.
Capt. Randy Trommer, first officer Doug Leja and relief first officer Barry McMahon were on duty to fly the 1135 departure from Los Angeles to Narita Airport, just north of Tokyo. Arrival time was scheduled for 1515 local. The B777 was planned for a flight just shy of 12 hours. The trip began as a routine operation. Prior to descent, the trip would become anything but.
At approximately 250 miles from Narita — 45 minutes from touchdown — the ACARS printer rolled out a message from Dispatch. An earthquake of tremendous magnitude had struck Japan. Subsequent contact with Tokyo Control confirmed the tragic news. The runways were being inspected for damage. In the meantime, the Narita control tower was being evacuated. Not good.
The space allotted here won’t allow me to list the qualifications of Randy, Doug and Barry. Suffice it to say, their experience is extensive. The decision process of determining an acceptable diversion airport is handled more skillfully by a seasoned crew. And most of us in the business know that the decision may not necessarily involve the alternate originally listed on the flight plan. Why?
The original alternate is primarily a dispatch requirement. Fuel load is calculated based on FARs for time and weather information gathered just prior to departure. Many of the parameters can change, especially on a 12-hour flight. Regardless, other factors have to be considered: weather deterioration, runway status, airplane handling capabilities, passenger handling capabilities, airport and arrival saturation.
Add a natural disaster that affects an entire country to the equation and a diversion becomes just that much more interesting. The flight enters a competition with other airplanes in a race to find a suitable piece of concrete. The loser gets to run out of fuel. The key to an outcome that doesn’t involve heart-thumping drama is to be proactive and to have an evolving plan for all contingencies. Randy Trommer and crew were up to the task.