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Friday, March 25. 2011
A Delta pilot’s story written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during the earthquake, forwarded thru CTV Television:
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 wrong.
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"
"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 approach....etc...."
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.
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Great story, Gwynnie. "Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer" like the World War II song. None of those aircrew guys will ever forget those moments. I think the letter writer was still a little high on relief when he wrote the letter. Given the possibility of not coming in at all, except in little pieces, I'll bet that they were hardly bothered by having to sit inside the plane for nine hours on the ground before the airport personnel retrieved them.
I am reminded of a story of the Princeton computer center, which had an IBM 7090 back when computers cost real money. and rainstorm water began to seep in under the door one day.
They called the fire department to get some pumps working on it.
The fire department said that they didn't do water, only fires.
"How big a fire do you need?"
"We'll be right out."
Good post! Thank you.
This is something I had heard nothing about and hadn't even considered in the aftermath of the quake.
rhhardin ... Love your story about the "Princeton Computer Center." If you're talking about the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, you bring back memories for me. I worked there for two years right after college, when they had [and developed further] one of only four fast digital computers in the country [this was back in 1952, you realize]. Oppenheimer was director of the Institute proper, and Einstein was still blessing the Institute with his presence. As you no doubt know, analog computers, like the IBM behemoths, were huge and filled whole rooms with whirring and clanking machinery, requiring carefully controlled temperatures in order to operate effectively. The MANIAC, our little digital beauty, was a relatively small speed demon in comparison. When I started work at the Institute, the MANIAC used cathode ray tubes for memory -- 24 of them, each with a raster of 1024 bytes of information. The cheapest computer today has much more memory than that, as you know, but we were proud of what we had. In the two years I was working for them, our brilliant techies first developed magnetic drum memory, and soon after magnetic core memories which greatly enlarged the capacity of the MANIAC.
Then my young husband died, and I returned to the Midwest to recoup. But I still fondly remember my days at the Computer Project.
And that was a mere sixty plus years ago...
Great story, I wonder how great the story would have been if a plane that actually was on reserve fuel crashed short of landing because you felt the need to LIE about your situation so you could safely land with 30 minutes of fuel in your tank.Selfishness in the face of disaster is the hallmark of cowardice and the pilot quite probably placed others at needless risk for his own safety and he's being applauded for that!
Michael, you obviously have never had the responsibilities of a good number of lives in your care.
and if you have... I am glad I was not one of them. As a pilot and yes I am one.... there is a term.. among many.. but the term is PIC or Pilot in command. the SIC or Second in command is just that. so.. as PIC... the decision to declare... was weighed heavily by the knowledge of the repercussions. so.. in fact given all that was rapidly deteriorating. I understand why this pilot may have decalred nd frankly probably would have done the same. It is easy to play quaterback from your laptop from some as%# wipe podunk located desk.. but when you have the lives of many in your care and a controller who is overwhelmed.... you make a command decision. in 30 mins... with no alternatives.... these things deteriorate rapidly.... want to come flying with me sometime? I'll run out of fuel and laugh while you shi. your drawers...all the while being in control and having an open and available alternative GOF course to land on... I APPLAUD the pilot. tough choices in a challenging scenario. in other words I would rather fill out the paperwork than be dead ya dope !
Airdog, maybe all the pilots should have been as ingenious and LIED about being in an emergency low fuel situation then everybody could have jumped their turn to land and come in first, do you see the stupidity in that. There is a reason triage medics treat the worst wounded first and there is a reason for ATC to prioritize landings for the most critical first so by LYING this pilot placed his lack of need before those who may actually be in need, I wonder would you applaud this cowardly action if you had been one of those waiting your turn as you watched your fuel slowly edging towards a REAL low fuel condition or God forbid his action had left someone circling as their fuel actually did run out.