How Japan Airlines crew helped save lives of 367 flyers as jet burst into flames

All 367 passengers, including eight children, evacuated safely as flames erupted on a Japan Airlines flight after it collided with a smaller Coast Guard plane. Experts have praised the crew doing an 'incredible job' and pulling off a great escape

FP Explainers January 03, 2024 15:12:38 IST
How Japan Airlines crew helped save lives of 367 flyers as jet burst into flames

An aerial view shows burnt Japan Airlines' (JAL) Airbus A350 plane after a collision with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, 3 January 2024. Reuters

It was nothing short of a miracle that all 379 people on board the Japan Airlines flight JAL-516 evacuated safely before the plane erupted in a fireball after colliding with a smaller Japanese Coast Guard aircraft on the runway at Toyko’s Haneda Airport on Tuesday (2 January). The people who made this possible were the 12 crew members and the passengers who followed their instructions amid such a panic-inducing situation.

As per reports, the JAL plane landed on Runway C of the Haneda airport at about 5:47 pm local time (2:17 pm IST) when it collided with the Coast Guard aircraft. The smaller plane burst, sending flames into the night sky. The bigger passenger jet continued to taxi on the runway, while its left engine erupted into flames, reported Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News.

Five of the six crew members on the Japan Coast Guard Bombardier Dash 8 plane died in the accident. The pilot, who is the lone survivor, was severely injured.

The tragic incident has shed the spotlight on the role of the crew of the Japan Airlines flight in the safe evacuation of all 367 passengers, including eight children under the age of two.

Let’s take a closer look.

Passengers recount tale

The passengers and the crew escaped the burning Airbus A350 using emergency slides, Kyodo news agency reported citing Japan’s transport ministry.

Uchida, a passenger in her 40s from Chiba Prefecture, said she was in a window seat on the right side of the plane near the wing, adding that the flight made a loud noise while landing. However, she did not realise it was a collision, according to the Associated Press (AP) report.

As she looked out the window, Uchida spotted flames near the wing.

“I thought it was over. I thought I was about to die,” she was quoted as saying by The Japan Times.

Uchida, who only gave her surname, said the cabin crew told the passengers to remain calm. She said it took a couple of minutes before the plane doors opened, allowing people to flee the burning aircraft.

How Japan Airlines crew helped save lives of 367 flyers as jet burst into flames
People watch a Japan Airlines plane on fire on the runway of Haneda airport on Tuesday, 2 January 2024. Kyodo News via AP

Videos showed passengers quickly but calmly coming down the inflatable evacuation slides and then running away from the plane, as per CBS News.

“The flight attendants told us to stay calm and instructed us to get off the plane,” another passenger, Satoshi Yamake, told Reuters.

Another flyer said to Japanese public broadcaster NHK that flight attendants were calm and told everyone to leave their baggage behind. After this, all lights went off inside the plane and the temperature inside the cabin started increasing.

Dramatic visuals showed smoke spreading inside the aircraft as passengers evacuated. Passengers can be seen shouting inside the plane’s cabin filled with smoke. At some point, a child’s voice can be heard shouting: “Let us get out quickly! Let us get out quickly!”

Japan Airlines reportedly said in a statement that the plane’s in-flight announcement system did not work during the evacuation, leading the crew members to use megaphones to convey instructions.

Speaking to Reuters, 28-year-old Tsubasa Sawada, who was on the flight, said there was an “explosion” on the plane about 10 minutes after the passengers fled the inferno.

“I can only say it was a miracle, we could have died if we were late,” Sawada said.

According to Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency, at least 17 people on the passenger jet were injured.

‘Incredible job’

Aviation experts have pointed out the role of crew and pilots on board the Japan Airlines flight in the successful evacuation of the passengers.

The evacuation began almost immediately after the flight landed and all passengers were ushered to safety within 20 minutes, ABC News reported citing JAL.

Professor Graham Braithwaite, director of transport systems at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, hailed the crew members. “From what I saw on the footage, I was surprised and relieved that everyone got out,” CNN quoted him as saying.

“It’s such a severe impact for any aircraft to have to withstand. But knowing what I know about that airline, and how much effort they put into safety and into crew training, the fact that they did do such a good job shouldn’t be such a surprise.”

Speaking to BBC, Braithwaite described Japan Airlines as a “world leader” in safety. “The evacuation has been successful and it is a reminder of how much has gone into training cabin crew.

“Their focus is on safety. They are the last people to evacuate the airplane and on face value, it looks like they have done an incredible job”, he was quoted as saying by AP.

Braithwaite told CNN that the 1985 incident when Osaka-bound JAL flight 123 crashed into a mountain near Tokyo, killing 520 out of the 524 onboard, has had a “profound” effect on the airlines. The disaster prompted JAL to prioritise its focus on passenger safety.

“They have a very strict culture around standard operating procedures and doing everything properly. That’s one of the reasons in this case I think the crew seems to have performed so well,” he explained.

Professor Ronald Bartsch, a former manager of air transport operations with Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), told ABC News that he was “surprised” that there were no casualties or serious injuries.

According to Brett Molesworth, a professor of Human Factors and Aviation Safety at UNSW, all planes are required under the law to be designed to be evacuated within 90 seconds, with just 50 per cent of doors working, ABC News reported.

In this case, passengers must also be appreciated for not panicking in such a dreadful situation or trying to carry their bags while fleeing the aircraft. Experts said their compliance also helped in averting a major disaster.

“The passengers must have followed instructions to a T. From the video footage that I’ve viewed, it didn’t appear that any of the passengers had carried their bags off the aircraft,” Bartsch told ABC News.

Another factor that worked was the “the crash-worthiness of modern jetliners today”, according to Robert Sumwalt, CBS News transportation safety analyst.

Sumwalt said the interiors of modern airplanes are designed to withstand fire. “The side walls don’t burn as quickly as they would in previous airplanes.”

What caused the Japan plane crash?

It is too soon to say. Investigations are underway to determine what caused the crash. It is believed that the JAL flight was cleared to land. However, the communication with the pilot of the Dash-8 Coast Guard aircraft is not yet known.

How Japan Airlines crew helped save lives of 367 flyers as jet burst into flames
Officials investigate a burnt Japan Coast Guard aircraft after a collision with Japan Airlines’ (JAL) Airbus A350 plane at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo, 3 January. Reuters

The collision was a result of a runway incursion, as per initial reports. This means the Coast Guard aircraft entered the runway when it should not have been, former air traffic controller Michele Robson told Sky News.

“It would appear that the pilot of the Coast Guard plane entered the runway when it was not supposed to. Whether or not that was the result of the air traffic control giving that instruction or whether the pilot … was confused by the instruction is yet to be seen,” Professor Bartsch was quoted as saying by ABC News.

It will take a while to find out how the two planes ended on the runway at the same time.

With inputs from agencies

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