Jumpseat: Cleared via Earthquake 1A Arrival

The recent earthquake that shattered Japan on the ground proved trying for those in the air, too.

Narita Airport

Narita Airport

Narita Airport (photo taken in 2009)

(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.

Their first course of action was simple. They listened. The radio frequency was overloaded with other airplanes making requests — situational awareness at its professional best. From experience, Randy knew that the logical alternate choice for most airlines would be Haneda Airport, south of Narita and closer to Tokyo. The airport would soon become saturated with traffic. He was right.

With the assistance of the FMC Alternate Page (it presents data on estimated time en route and fuel burn), the crew pooled resources and collectively reached a decision. Nagoya Airport would be the first choice, and Sapporo to the north would be the second. Osaka to the south was considered, but its distance from their current track positioned the airport twice as far as Sapporo.

Approximately 150 miles from the Japanese coastline, the flight entered a holding pattern. Via satcom, Randy conferred with Dispatch regarding the alternate choices. He advised that they would be departing for the alternate sooner rather than later. The plan was put into play. A request to proceed to Nagoya was transmitted to ATC.

As time progressed airplanes began to declare fuel emergencies, getting the attention of ATC. The Japanese controllers are very efficient under normal circumstances. Abnormal situations are not handled quite as smoothly. The controllers’ solution in the midst of the earthquake was to ask crews to “stand by” if their status didn’t dictate an urgent request. Randy and company were hearing a lot of standbys.

Fortunately, the flight had not only departed with an adequate supply of jet-A, but also had been more consumption-efficient than planned. On average, the Los Angeles fuel load is planned for an endurance of 13.5 hours, which translates to around 215,000 pounds or 32,000 gallons. The 777 has a capacity of approximately 45,000 gallons. As impressive as those numbers may seem, not much remains for extraordinary contingencies that involve holding patterns and diversions.

The good news: no weather issues. The bad news: Plan B had to be initiated in short order. Nagoya was no longer accepting arrivals. Next stop: Sapporo. Initially, a dogleg routing was given. After some firm persuasion and a couple of standbys, a direct clearance was granted. Another airline that had declared a fuel emergency was in the process of receiving vectors. Randy and crew tagged in behind.

Approximately 40 miles from Sapporo, they were given holding instructions. Aware of the critical fuel status of other airplanes that would soon follow, Randy didn’t want to waste time flying in circles. An immediate approach clearance was requested. Within a short period of time, an uneventful landing was completed. And that’s when the real fun began.

Sapporo Airport soon became an aluminum jungle. Airlines were parked wherever space allowed, mostly away from jet bridges. Portable airstair availability was limited. That fact became problematic for some. If passengers couldn’t be deplaned, the airplane would become the waiting lounge. Because of low fuel status, APUs would soon flame out. The temperature outside was a balmy 22 degrees F.

If crew resource management was at its finest while in flight, it was at its absolute best on the ground. First on the list was obtaining fuel. With information on the disaster still being assimilated, departing remained a possibility. But if they remained in Sapporo, only a handful of options were available to accommodate crew and passengers. In order of accommodation preference: hotel, terminal, airplane.

Obtaining fuel proved difficult. A combination of satcom, Dispatch, Narita operational personnel and Japan Airlines (JAL) representatives were required to complete the process, notwithstanding the use of a Japanese-speaking flight attendant for translation. At one point, Randy offered to use his own credit card. In the end fueling occurred, but only because Randy rode on board while the airplane was towed to the appropriate spot after all passengers and crew had deplaned. Did I mention that he also obtained access to the ramp via the E&E (electronics and engineering) compartment in order to check the status of two dogs in a cargo hold?

A lot of information was being obtained via passenger cell phone conversations with friends and family. As time progressed, it was apparent that no flights would depart despite the best hopes and dreams of airline operational control. Because of Randy’s orchestration and the entire crew’s professional cooperation, hotel rooms were obtained for crew and passengers both on their airplane and another company flight. Four hours later, the airstairs arrived. Passengers and crew deplaned. Because buses were used, the process allowed for only 40 people at a time.

Randy organized a contact phone tree, established communication with Dispatch and finalized transportation logistics with the Sapporo hotel. The plan was to depart for Narita with the passengers in the morning. Although information concerning Narita’s status was conflicting, it was eventually determined that the flight could depart.

The Sapporo terminal had become a passenger refugee camp. People were scattered everywhere, mats included. Security was overwhelmed. Randy negotiated with JAL personnel for an escort.

Once again, airstairs and buses had to be requested. Despite the obstacles, the flight arrived in Narita without issues. Passengers were grateful and appreciative of the crew’s efforts.

Of course, the experience didn’t quite end when the crew closed the doors to their hotel rooms. Aftershocks rattled the hotel enough to rock the entire structure back and forth three feet each way. Doug found himself in the middle of a Narita street during the second aftershock. He was there because he had felt compelled to contact the Red Cross, wanting to donate blood. His efforts proved unsuccessful, but he later realized that blood donation wasn’t in the best interest of flying an airplane. Company policy dictates a 72-hour wait prior to duty.

Because of the extraordinary circumstances, the three-day trip transformed into a five-day trip. On the fifth day, the crew departed Narita for Los Angeles at the normally scheduled departure time.

If an earthquake checklist had really existed, this crew would have completed every item. I applaud their creative professionalism. If I had been a passenger, these are the pilots I’d have wanted in the cockpit. Considering other successful flights, I am confident that Randy’s crew was not alone.

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