Written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake

Written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake.

I’m currently still in one piece, writing from my room in the Narita crew hotel.
It’s 8am. This is my inaugural trans-pacific trip as a brand new, recently
checked out, international 767 Captain and it has been interesting, to say the
least, so far. I’ve crossed the Atlantic three times so far so the ocean
crossing procedures were familiar.

By the way, stunning scenery flying over the Aleutian Islands. Everything was
going fine until 100 miles out from Tokyo and in the descent for arrival. The
first indication of any trouble was that Japan air traffic control started
putting everyone into holding patterns. At first we thought it was usual
congestion on arrival. Then we got a company data link message advising about
the earthquake, followed by another stating Narita airport was temporarily
closed for inspection and expected to open shortly (the company is always so

From our perspective things were obviously looking a little different. The
Japanese controller’s anxiety level seemed quite high and he said expect
“indefinite” holding time. No one would commit to a time frame on that so I got
my copilot and relief pilot busy looking at divert stations and our fuel
situation, which, after an ocean crossing is typically low.

It wasn’t long, maybe ten minutes, before the first pilots started requesting
diversions to other airports. Air Canada, American, United, etc. all reporting
minimal fuel situations. I still had enough fuel for 1.5 to 2.0 hours of
holding. Needless to say, the diverts started complicating the situation.

Japan air traffic control then announced Narita was closed indefinitely due to
damage. Planes immediately started requesting arrivals into Haneada, near Tokyo,
a half dozen JAL and western planes got clearance in that direction but then ATC
announced Haenada had just closed. Uh oh! Now instead of just holding, we all
had to start looking at more distant alternatives like Osaka, or Nagoya.

One bad thing about a large airliner is that you can’t just be-pop into any
little airport. We generally need lots of runway. With more planes piling in
from both east and west, all needing a place to land and several now fuel
critical ATC was getting over-whelmed. In the scramble, and without waiting for
my fuel to get critical, I got my flight a clearance to head for Nagoya, fuel
situation still okay. So far so good. A few minutes into heading that way, I was
“ordered” by ATC to reverse course. Nagoya was saturated with traffic and unable
to handle more planes (read- airport full). Ditto for Osaka.

With that statement, my situation went instantly from fuel okay, to fuel minimal
considering we might have to divert a much farther distance. Multiply my
situation by a dozen other aircraft all in the same boat, all making demands
requests and threats to ATC for clearances somewhere. Air Canada and then
someone else went to “emergency” fuel situation. Planes started to heading for
air force bases. The nearest to Tokyo was Yokoda AFB. I threw my hat in the ring
for that initially. The answer – Yokoda closed! no more space.

By now it was a three ring circus in the cockpit, my copilot on the radios, me
flying and making decisions and the relief copilot buried in the air charts
trying to figure out where to go that was within range while data link messages
were flying back and forth between us and company dispatch in Atlanta. I picked
Misawa AFB at the north end of Honshu island. We could get there with minimal
fuel remaining. ATC was happy to get rid of us so we cleared out of the
maelstrom of the Tokyo region. We heard ATC try to send planes toward Sendai, a
small regional airport on the coast which was later the one I think that got
flooded by a tsunami.

Atlanta dispatch then sent us a message asking if we could continue to Chitose
airport on the Island of Hokkaido, north of Honshu. Other Delta planes were
heading that way. More scrambling in the cockpit – check weather, check charts,
check fuel, okay. We could still make it and not be going into a fuel critical
situation … if we had no other fuel delays. As we approached Misawa we got
clearance to continue to Chitose. Critical decision thought process. Let’s see –
trying to help company – plane overflies perfectly good divert airport for one
farther away…wonder how that will look in the safety report, if anything goes

Suddenly ATC comes up and gives us a vector to a fix well short of Chitose and
tells us to standby for holding instructions. Nightmare realized. Situation
rapidly deteriorating. After initially holding near Tokyo, starting a divert to
Nagoya, reversing course back to Tokyo then to re-diverting north toward Misawa,
all that happy fuel reserve that I had was vaporizing fast. My subsequent
conversation, paraphrased of course…., went something like this:

“Sapparo Control – Delta XX requesting immediate clearance direct to Chitose,
minimum fuel, unable hold.”

“Negative Ghost-Rider, the Pattern is full” <<< top gun quote <<<

“Sapparo Control – make that – Delta XX declaring emergency, low fuel,
proceeding direct Chitose”

“Roger Delta XX, understood, you are cleared direct to Chitose, contact Chitose

Enough was enough, I had decided to preempt actually running critically low on
fuel while in another indefinite holding pattern, especially after bypassing
Misawa, and played my last ace…declaring an emergency. The problem with that
is now I have a bit of company paperwork to do but what the heck.

As it was – landed Chitose, safe, with at least 30 minutes of fuel remaining
before reaching a “true” fuel emergency situation. That’s always a good feeling,
being safe. They taxied us off to some remote parking area where we shut down
and watched a half dozen or more other airplanes come streaming in. In the end,
Delta had two 747s, my 767 and another 767 and a 777 all on the ramp at Chitose.
We saw two American airlines planes, a United and two Air Canada as well. Not to
mention several extra Al Nippon and Japan Air Lines planes.

Post-script – 9 hours later, Japan air lines finally got around to getting a
boarding ladder to the plane where we were able to get off and clear customs. –
that however, is another interesting story.

By the way – while writing this – I have felt four additional tremors that shook
the hotel slightly – all in 45 minutes.



  • Earla keller
    Posted at 14:17h, 30 March Reply

    I was one of the passangers on Delta 91 on that day. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the job the pilots and flight attendants did on that day. Our Captain did everything within his power to keep us informed of what the situatiation without causing panic to his passengers. The nine hour wait on the tarmac was not a fun thing to go through and the long hours waiting in the airport were chaos. We were not given food or water vouchers (given to flights later leaving airport) and atm machines had been knocked off line due to the earthquake. When it came time to reboard our flight it was the American military passangers who were stepping up and taking charge as people were shoveing and screaming and there seemed to be no sense of order. The employees that Delta flew in to handle ticket agent positions spoke very little english and could not answer questions. I do think Delta does not live up to the commercials they are airing on the television. They did not have our backs on this day. Kudos to the pilots that got us down safely……

  • Nic Orchard
    Posted at 15:41h, 27 March Reply

    I’d wondered rather idly about this situation, but greatly underestimated the number of aircraft and therefore pressures involved.

    After all that, I imagine the 9hr wait was either the last straw or a cause of wry amusement. I think I can guess…

  • Jeanne MacPherson
    Posted at 23:38h, 24 March Reply

    Wow, thank you for sharing this with us.

  • B.D.
    Posted at 09:33h, 23 March Reply

    When will we hear about the 9 hour wait, getting off, clearing customs? You said that is another interesting story and I’d like to read about it. I’m sure it was a cluster!!

  • B.D.
    Posted at 09:31h, 23 March Reply

    OMG!!! Who would have thought?!! God was with you .. may He continue to be 🙂

  • Gwen White
    Posted at 10:53h, 22 March Reply

    Thank you J.D. for sharing your story. I never thought of the planes in the air. God Bless.

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