Order and Calm Eased Evacuation from Burning Japan Airlines Jet


As smoke filled the cabin of Japan Airlines Flight 516 after its fiery landing in Tokyo on Tuesday, the sound of a child’s voice rose above the din of confusion onboard. “Please, let us off quickly!” the child pleaded, using a polite form of Japanese despite the fear washing over the passengers as flight attendants began shouting instructions.

In the minutes that followed, even as the flames that would eventually engulf the JAL plane flickered outside the windows, order held. The attendants evacuated all 367 passengers through the three exit doors deemed safest, sending them down the emergency slides one by one, with no major injuries. Most left behind everything but the phones that would capture the harrowing scenes for the world.

While a number of factors aided what many have called a miracle at Haneda Airport — a well-trained crew of 12; a veteran pilot with 12,000 hours of flight experience; advanced aircraft design and materials — the relative absence of panic onboard during the emergency procedure perhaps helped the most.

“Even though I heard screams, mostly people were calm and didn’t stand up from their seats but kept sitting and waiting,” said Aruto Iwama, a passenger who gave a video interview to the newspaper The Guardian. “That’s why I think we were able to escape smoothly.”

Anton Deibe, a 17-year-old passenger from Stockholm, agreed with that assessment, saying, “The cabin crew were very professional, but one could see even in their eyes that they were scared.” Still, he added, “no one ran ahead to save themselves. Everyone waited for instructions.”

A day after the JAL fire, caused by a collision on the runway with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft, clues began to emerge about what led to the disaster, which killed five Coast Guard members on their way to help with earthquake relief in western Japan.

In a transcript of communications between the air traffic control tower and both the JAL jet and the Coast Guard plane, it appeared that the commercial flight was given permission to land while the Coast Guard aircraft was told to “taxi to holding point” next to the runway.

Officials were trying to learn why the Coast Guard plane ended up on the runway. Takuya Fujiwara, an investigator with the Japan Transport Safety Board, told reporters that the agency had collected the voice recorder — or so-called black box — from the Coast Guard aircraft but was still searching for the recorder from the Japan Airlines jet.

In video footage of the JAL plane’s landing, it appeared to be lined in flames as it plunged down the runway, making it difficult to believe anyone could have made it off the flight unscathed.

Yet the fuselage withstood the flames pouring from the engines for the 18 minutes that passed between the plane’s touchdown, at 5:47 p.m., and the moment the last person left the aircraft, at 6:05, Yasuo Numahata, a spokesman for Japan Airlines, said during a news briefing on Wednesday. Those 18 minutes, he said, included a glide of about two-thirds of a mile down the runway before the plane came to a stop and the evacuation slides could unfurl.

Experts said that while crews are trained — and passenger jets are tested — for cabin evacuations within 90 seconds in an emergency landing, technical specifications on the two-year-old Airbus A350-900 most likely gave those on the flight a bit more time to escape.

Firewalls around the engines, nitrogen pumps in fuel tanks that help prevent immediate burning, and fire-resistant materials on seats and flooring most likely helped to keep the rising flames at bay, said Sonya A. Brown, a senior lecturer in aerospace design at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

“Having a level of fire resistance makes the initial progression slower,” Dr. Brown said in a telephone interview. “If we have things that reduce the spread, we can increase the chance of getting everybody off safely.”

In an email, Sean Lee, a spokesman for Airbus, said that the A350-900 was equipped with four emergency exits and slides that could be used to exit both sides of the aircraft. He said that the plane had floor lighting on both sides of the aisles, and that “the fuselage is largely composed of composite materials, which offer the same level of fire resistance as aluminum.” Aluminum is typically considered to offer a high level of fire protection.

As much as the construction of the plane, clear instructions by the flight crew and the compliance of passengers would have been instrumental in the safe evacuation, Dr. Brown said.

“Really, the Japan Airlines crew in this case performed extremely well,” Dr. Brown said. The fact that passengers did not stop to retrieve carry-on luggage or otherwise slow down the exit was “really critical,” she added.

Yasuhito Imai, 63, a company executive from a Tokyo suburb who had been traveling back from the northern prefecture of Hokkaido on the flight, told Jiji Press, a wire service, that the only thing he took from the plane was his smartphone.

“Most of us had taken off our jackets and were shivering from the cold,” he said. Despite some crying children and others who were yelling, he said, “we were able to evacuate almost without panic.”

Tadayuki Tsutsumi, an official at Japan Airlines, said the most important component of crew performance during an emergency was “panic control” and determining which exit doors were safe to use.

Former flight attendants described the rigorous training and drills that crew members undergo to prepare for emergencies. “When training for evacuation procedures, we repeatedly used smoke/fire simulation to make sure we could be mentally ready when situations like those occurred in reality,” Yoko Chang, a former cabin attendant and an instructor of aspiring crew members, wrote in an Instagram message.

Ms. Chang, who did not work for JAL, added that airlines require cabin crew members to pass evacuation exams every six months.

Mr. Numahata of Japan Airlines said that 15 people had been injured in the evacuation, none critically. Kazuki Sugiura, an aviation analyst in Tokyo, said such results were remarkable.

“In a normal emergency situation, quite a lot of people get injured,” Mr. Sugiura, who has studied airline accidents for more than 50 years, said in an interview. “The evacuation slides are moved by wind, and passengers fall from the exits one after another, so people crash on the ground and they often get hurt.”

As for whether a miscommunication between the air traffic control tower and one of the planes could have caused the collision, Mr. Sugiura said that “it’s hard to speculate what happened.” The Coast Guard pilot “could have misunderstood” the air traffic control instructions, he added.

What is clear, said Dr. Brown, is that “we should not have had an aircraft preparing to take off and another plane landing on the same runway at the same time.”

She said that the crew members on the Coast Guard aircraft, a Bombardier Canada DHC-8-315, most likely died “in the actual impact itself” when the two planes collided, given that the Coast Guard propeller plane was much smaller than the passenger jet.

Hiroshi Sugie, a former Japan Airlines pilot, said runway incursions, in which two planes end up on the same runway, are all too common. “Human errors can happen at big airports,” he said.

Ever since a deadly 1991 accident in Los Angeles in which a Boeing jet collided with a smaller turboprop aircraft, Mr. Sugie said, pilots are required to verbally repeat all instructions from the air traffic control tower.

Mr. Numahata, the Japan Airlines spokesman, said that the captain of Flight 516 had confirmed the permission to land verbally and repeated it back to the tower. The Coast Guard crew also confirmed instructions to move to the “holding point.”

Reporting was contributed by Kiuko Notoya and Miharu Nishiyama from Tokyo and Jin Yu Young from Seoul.

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