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Japanese transport officials and police begin on-site probe after fatal crash on Tokyo runway

Transport officials and police have begun separate investigations at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, a day after a large passenger plane and a Japanese coast guard aircraft collided on the runway and burst into flames, killing five people

Foster Klug,Mari Yamaguchi
Wednesday 03 January 2024 08:00 GMT

Transport officials and police began separate investigations at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Wednesday, a day after a large passenger plane and a Japanese coast guard aircraft collided on the runway and burst into flames, killing five people.

The accident occurred Tuesday evening when the Japan Airlines flight JAL-516 plane landed on one of Haneda's four runways after the coast guard aircraft — a Bombardier Dash-8 — had also entered, preparing to take off. Both sides said they received a go-ahead from aviation officials.

An orange fireball erupted from the aircraft, and the JAL plane continued down the runway covered in flames while spewing gray smoke. Within 20 minutes, all 379 passengers and crew members slid down emergency chutes and survived. The pilot of the coast guard plane, which exploded, evacuated with injuries but five crew members aboard the coast guard plane were killed.

Transport safety officials were focusing on communication between air traffic control officials and the two aircraft to determine what led to the collision.

Police began a separate probe into possible professional negligence. On Wednesday, Tokyo police said that investigators examined the debris on the runway and were to interview the involved parties.

The Japan Airlines A350 had flown from Shin Chitose airport near the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, and the coast guard Bombardia was preparing to depart for Niigata to deliver relief supplies to residents in the central Japan regions hit by powerful earthquakes on Monday that killed more than 60 people.

On Wednesday, six experts from the Japan Transport Safety Board examined what remained of the aircraft, the board said. TV footage showed the severely damaged A350's wings among the charred, broken parts of fuselages. The smaller coast guard plane looked like a mound of rubble.

Transport safety investigators plan to interview the pilots and officials from both sides, as well as air traffic control officials to find out how the two planes simultaneously ended up on the runway, JTSB said.

The two sides had different understandings of their permission to use the runway.

JAL Managing Executive Officer Tadayuki Tsutsumi told a news conference late Tuesday that the A350 was making a “normal entry and landing” on the runway. Another JAL executive, Noriyuki Aoki, said the flight had received permission to land from aviation officials.

The air traffic officials gave the JAL airliner landing permission, while telling the coast guard pilot to wait before entering the runway, NHK television reported Wednesday. But the coast guard pilot said he also had been given permission to take off. The coast guard said officials were verifying that claim.

All passengers and crew members left their baggage and slid down the escape chutes within 20 minutes of the landing as smoke filled the cabin of the burning aircraft — an outcome praised by aviation experts. Videos posted by passengers showed people covering their mouths with handkerchiefs as they ducked down and moved toward the exits. Some passengers told news media they felt safe only after reaching a grassy area beyond the tarmac.

“The entire cabin was filled with smoke within a few minutes. We threw ourselves down on the floor. Then the emergency doors were opened and we threw ourselves at them,” Swedish passenger Anton Deibe, 17, told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. “The smoke in the cabin stung like hell.”

The fire is likely to be seen as a key test case for airplane fuselages made from carbon-composite fibers — featured on the A350 and the Boeing 787 — instead of conventional aluminum skins.

“This is the most catastrophic composite-airplane fire that I can think of. On the other hand, that fuselage protected (passengers) from a really horrific fire — it did not burn through for some period of time and let everybody get out,” safety consultant John Cox said.

Haneda's three other runways reopened late Tuesday, but some 100 flights have been canceled due to the closure of the accident-hit runway. The airport was packed Wednesday as many holidaymakers wrapped up their New Year travel, including those who who survived the fire and spent the night at the airport or at nearby hotels, trying to change their flights.

Haneda is the busier of the two major airports serving the Japanese capital, with many international flights, and is favored by business travelers due to its proximity to central parts of the city.

Tuesday’s accident was the first severe damage to an Airbus A350, among the industry’s newest large passenger planes. It entered commercial service in 2015. Airbus said in a statement it was sending specialists to help Japanese and French officials investigating the accident, and that the plane was delivered to Japan Airlines in late 2021.

JAL operates 16 of the A350-900 version aircraft, according to its website. The twin-engine, twin-aisle A350 is used by a number of long-haul international carriers. More than 570 of the aircraft are in operation, according to Airbus.


Yamaguchi reported from Kyoto, Japan. Adam Schreck in Osaka, Japan, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

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