A Japan Airlines flight connecting the northern city of Sapporo to Tokyo’s Haneda airport burst into flames on Tuesday in one of the worst accidents in the country’s aviation history. The Airbus A350 collided with a smaller Coast Guard plane shortly after landing, erupting into a fireball that claimed the lives of five Coast Guard crew members. But passengers and crew survived, thanks to the aircraft’s robust crash-worthiness and the efficiency of evacuation procedures.
Dramatic footage from Japanese broadcaster NHK showed plumes of orange fire and black smoke engulfing the passenger jet as it taxied on the runway at Haneda. The side of the plane and areas around its wing caught on fire at first before the fire spread across the cabin.
Those on board could exit the plane using inflatable slides despite the fire raging outside the aircraft. It took less than 20 minutes for everyone to evacuate, a remarkable feat safely.
“The people on the ground at Haneda did an amazing job of securing those stuck,” said Japan Airlines chief executive Shin-ichi Nagata. “They were able to get everybody out very quickly.”
But the crew aboard the JAL flight, which had departed from New Chitose airport in Hokkaido, also deserve much credit. “They were able to evacuate people from the airplane even while the plane was on fire,” says safety consultant John Cox. “That’s a tribute to their training and how they work.”
Japan’s air travel industry has long had one of the world’s safest records, but it can also experience harrowing incidents. Some of the worst airline crashes ever on US soil have occurred in the nation, and many are still etched in memory.
The incident will have been utterly terrifying for the 379 passengers and crew on the JAL plane. The Boeing 767-300ER was carrying passengers from Sapporo to Tokyo for a family reunion, and a trip home after an earthquake struck the northern island of Hokkaido. But that anticipation turned to terror when a rattling and bang were heard inside the cabin, followed by the sight of the plane bursting into flames on the runway.
The pilots of the JAL jet, flying from Sapporo to Tokyo’s Haneda, received permission to land from air traffic control. They could have turned right or left after they passed the threshold, but that would likely have put them into collision with a taxiing JCG plane or a third plane on the runway. In addition, turning to the right would have pushed them into a wall and risked hitting another plane on the runway, while turning left could have caused them to rear-end the JCG plane or make the accident into an enormous fireball. They couldn’t have done much more to avoid the collision. A JCG official says the pilots probably didn’t know about the other plane until they were on the runway.