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All on A350 Survive Accident in Tokyo

What we know so far about the Japan Airlines A350-900 accident in Tokyo.

A Japan Airlines Airbus A350-900 at Tokyo Haneda International Airport (Photo: Shutterstock)

A Japan Airlines Airbus A350 caught fire on Tuesday after colliding with a Bombardier Dash 8 operating for the Japanese Coast Guard. The commercial aircraft had just landed and was rolling out on runway 34R at Tokyo’s Haneda airport when the collision occurred.

There was no indication of any problem onboard the Japan Airlines plane before landing. Officials believe that the collision happened in what is known as the “touchdown zone” on the runway, the area where a commercial jet must land in order to ensure a safe rollout. The touchdown zone starts at the runway threshold, which marks the beginning of the available landing distance, and extends for several thousand feet. This means that the collision occurred early in the touchdown sequence, where the Dash 8 might have been waiting to depart once the passenger jet cleared the runway.

The A350 burst into flames immediately after the collision. According to reports, 70 fire trucks were required to put out the blaze.

All 379 passengers and crew onboard the Japan Airlines plane were evacuated in just over 90 seconds, in line with aircraft certification requirements and crew training guidelines. However, five of six people onboard the coastguard aircraft were killed; only the pilot, who is in critical condition at the time of writing, survived.

Analysts are highly commending the Japan Airlines crew for not only evacuating the plane so efficiently and successfully but also for keeping the jet on the runway and away from other aircraft. This made it easier for fire crews to fight the blaze without risking more aircraft.

“The cabin crew must have done an excellent job. It was a miracle that all the passengers got off,” said Paul Hayes, director of air safety at U.K.-based aviation consultancy Ascend by Cirium, to Reuters.

The Coast Guard aircraft was flying to an airbase in Niigata prefecture to assist with the rescue efforts after an earthquake killed nearly 50 people. The aircraft was heading to deliver humanitarian aid to the earthquake site.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida commended the Coast Guard crew for their service to Japan and thanked other crews for their continued efforts.

“This [accident] is a great regret as the crew members performed their duties with a strong sense of mission and responsibility for the victims of the disaster area,” Kishida said, referring to those killed on the Coast Guard plane.

Runway Incursion Speculation

It will take time to determine what caused the crash. Investigations for most accidents, especially those involving multiple transport category aircraft at busy airports with hundreds of passengers and military crews, can take two years or more, as investigators must analyze every piece of information and every potential factor to accurately determine what happened. However, we already know that the Japan Airlines plane received and read back a clearance to land on the runway they were using. The Coast Guard plane was issued a hold-short clearance.

The question must arise, therefore, whether a runway incursion occurred. Again, such is unconfirmed, but the fact that it was an evening hour with minimal lighting means it might have been more difficult for the Coast Guard crew to identify the ground markings that note where the taxiway ends and the runway begins.

ATC communications, and cockpit discussions, will be heavily scrutinized during the investigation. Was there any uncertainty about what either the Japan Airlines A350 or the Coast Guard aircraft was cleared to do? Did each crew know where they were and what they were doing, and did either see the other aircraft before the collision? If a runway incursion did occur, did the Coast Guard crew suspect as much, and did air traffic controllers say anything?

What is known is that the Coast Guard aircraft was not equipped with a “modern ADS-B transponder,” a type of device used to identify an aircraft’s location and send information about it to air traffic control and other aircraft, per Sky News. This means that, regardless of the equipment installed at Haneda to alert controllers to a plane’s location or warn them of runway incursions, the plane might not have activated warnings on its proximity to the runway or the Japan Airlines aircraft because it would not be emitting the most accurate signals about its position. ADS-B is more accurate than conventional radar surveillance.

ADS-B has been required on all airplanes with a transponder since 2020 in the United States. Aircraft around the world tend to conform to requirements in major aviation markets such as the U.S. in order to maintain type certification around the world. The Japan Airlines plane certainly had ADS-B equipment onboard, but it is currently unclear why a Coast Guard aircraft would not.

What is clear is that this accident was likely just that. Airports, and aviation in general, have such thorough safety measures that significant accidents never occur due to a single mistake. Rather, a chain of mistakes and minute failures usually add up to cause accidents.

This incident calls to mind a 2022 incident in Peru. A fire truck on a training exercise missed a turn and entered a runway where a LATAM aircraft was taking off. The plane burst into flames, but all the passengers survived.

First A350 Hull Loss

This accident represents the first hull loss of any Airbus A350 jet. The type started flying in commercial service in 2015. This was also the first hull loss of any composite airliner, per Leeham News.

The A350 joins the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as only the second commercial airliner made entirely of composite materials. When the Dreamliner was undergoing testing, significant research was done into how composite airliners react to fires. Two 787s have experienced fires before: another Japan Airlines aircraft had a battery problem in Boston that caused a fire, and an Ethiopian 787 was set on fire by pinched wiring in London. Both planes were heavily damaged but subsequently repaired.

When the Dreamliner was introduced nearly 15 years ago, airport fire departments feared that they would need to change the way they fight fires to adapt to the characteristics of composite aircraft.

“This will fundamentally change everything from strategy and tactics and equipment,” said Bill Davis, the assistant chief of the Denver Fire Department assigned to the Denver International Airport, in 2009. “It strikes me that we’re definitely going to have to train to and equip ourselves differently. I’ve studied fires in military composites. This (B-2A crash) is the first of an all-composite airplane; usually, there are just parts that are composites.”

JAL’s first A350 in Toulouse (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

However, Boeing said at the time that there is no effective difference between an airplane made of composites and one made of traditional parts. The manufacturer advised fire departments to treat the 787 like any other airplane.

“Boeing has done extensive testing on the properties of the composite materials being used on board the 787 and its reaction in both in-flight fire and post-crash fire scenarios. Boeing has found – and by law must demonstrate to the FAA – that the 787 will be as safe, or safer than, today’s airplanes. The composites used on the 787 demonstrate performance that meets those requirements,” Boeing said in a statement in response to concerns.

Tuesday’s A350 crash will provide useful information about how composite aircraft respond to fires in real-world situations and will help guide how fire brigades respond to fires on composite aircraft in the future. As is unfortunately the case, accidents are often among the best ways to determine how to keep aviation safe and refine safety practices for the future.

Ongoing Investigation

The runway on which the collision occurred is still closed at the time of writing, and it likely will be for some time more. Crash investigators will need to inspect the wreckage of both the Dash 8 and the A350 to collect preliminary data, including the flight data and voice recorders from both aircraft. They will also collect debris from the site, take pictures, interview crewmembers, and more.

Airbus is sending employees to Japan to assist with the investigation.

A significant number of flights have been canceled at Haneda, as all runways were closed for a time to facilitate rapid response. Though the airport has begun to reopen, it will be a while before it is again operating at full capacity.

The A350 involved was only two years old and was registered in September 2021.

John McDermott

Author

  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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