A deadly runway collision between a Japan Airlines passenger jet and a coast guard plane at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on January 2nd is being blamed on miscommunication by air traffic controllers. The crash resulted in 5 deaths and the dramatic emergency evacuation of over 350 frightened passengers and crew from the rapidly burning widebody jet.
Misunderstanding Led to Coast Guard Plane Entering Active Runway
According to newly released air traffic control transcripts , the Japan Coast Guard RC-2 aircraft had requested permission to take off from Haneda’s Runway 34L shortly before the Japan Airlines A350 jet was cleared to land on the same runway. The control tower cleared the coast guard plane for takeoff even though the runway was still occupied by a cargo jet that was slow to exit. This led the coast guard crew to mistakenly enter the active runway just as the JAL passenger jet touched down at high speed.
“The air traffic controllers’ instructions to the two aircraft were extremely dangerous,” said aviation safety expert John Hansman of MIT. “Clearing an aircraft to take off while another is landing on the same runway goes against all standard procedure – this should never have happened.”
Passenger Jet Bursts Into Flames After Collision
According to passengers, the JAL jet initially touched down smoothly on its rear wheels before suddenly pitching nose-down and striking the coast guard turboprop plane near the runway’s midpoint. The collision tore off one of the A350’s engines and ruptured its wing fuel tank, causing a massive fireball. Over 350 passengers and 12 crew members were trapped aboard the rapidly burning jetliner.
“It was clear we had only minutes to get out,” said Australian businessman Paul Tan, 41. “We could see the orange glow and black smoke gushing into the cabin. People were screaming and flight attendants were shouting at us to evacuate.”
Incredibly, within 18 minutes after impact all 367 occupants had escaped the shattered, burning plane using emergency slides deployed by the crew. Authorities praised the flight attendants’ swift actions and passengers’ orderly evacuation amid smoke and chaos.
Five Killed in Coast Guard Plane and on Ground
Tragically, all four crew members aboard the coast guard aircraft died as it spun out of control and crashed upside-down on the taxiway edge, bursting into flames. Additionally, a Haneda Airport maintenance worker in an operations vehicle near the runway was struck by flaming debris and killed.
Firetrucks doused the JAL jet 1.5 hours after the crash, by which point the aircraft was destroyed. Milind Chandwani, 57, recalled the terrifying sight from the evacuation slide: “The front part of plane was already engulfed in towering flames. Relief washed over me as I moved away and watched the jet continue burning from a distance.”
Runway Incursion Highlights Air Traffic Controller Stress
Japan’s Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission has launched an investigation and will issue a report within a year. However, the fatal collision has already highlighted systemic issues of excessive controller workload and outdated equipment at Haneda, one of Asia’s busiest airports.
Air traffic controllers manage incredibly complex, high-speed traffic safely every day. But they also endure intense stress, as a single brief lapse can spell disaster for hundreds. While automation helps, equipment upgrades at Haneda – including electronic flight progress strips and landing time indicators – have lagged behind other major airports.
“Controllers are the last line of defense – we urgently need to address conditions putting undue strain on these unsung heroes,” said Kathy Hochul of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
|Injuries/Deaths from Haneda Runway Collision
|367 – Survived JAL jet evacuation
|4 – Died aboard coast guard plane
|1 – Airport worker struck by debris
With over 3000 flight operations daily, experts say near-misses may be more common than reported at Haneda and other congested airports. This crash is a wake-up call to improve safety through infrastructure upgrades, streamlined procedures, and enhanced controller training.
Most passengers interviewed felt lucky to be alive and praised the flight crew’s swift actions amid chaos and danger. As survivor Priya Sharma said, holding back tears, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that so many made it out alive.”
Aviation officials vow to leave no stone unturned to ensure such a preventable disaster never occurs again. Only time will tell whether vital lessons are learned from this near-catastrophe in Tokyo.
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