Japan begins twin probes into rare Tokyo runway collision

TOKYO: Japan’s transport authorities began inspecting on Wednesday (Jan 3) the charred remains of a passenger jet and a coast guard plane that collided at a Tokyo airport, while media said police were also examining possible professional negligence in the case.

All 379 people aboard the Japan Airlines (JAL) Airbus A350 had a miraculous escape after it burst in flame following Tuesday’s crash with a De Havilland Dash-8 Coast Guard turboprop shortly after landing at Haneda airport

But five died among the six Coast Guard crew reacting to a major earthquake on the west coast, while the captain, who escaped the wreckage, was badly injured.

Such runway collisions, once a recurring safety problem, have become far less common, say aviation experts, thanks to modern ground tracking technology and processes.

Japanese officials say the cause of the crash is unclear.

The Japan Safety Transport Board (JTSB) is investigating the incident, with involvement by agencies in France, where the Airbus airplane was built, and Britain, where its two Rolls-Royce engines were made, people familiar with the matter said.

The JTSB has recovered flight and voice recorders from the coast guard aircraft, Kyodo news agency said, quoting the agency.

Tokyo police are probing whether possible professional negligence led to deaths and injuries, several media, including Kyodo and the Nikkei business newspaper, said.

Police set up a special unit airport to examine the runway and planned to interview those involved, a spokesperson said, but refused to say if they were examining the negligence concerns.

“There’s a strong possibility there was a human error,” said aviation analyst Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who is a former JAL pilot.

“Aircraft accidents very rarely occur due to a single problem, so I think that this time too there were two or three issues that led to the accident.”

At a series of press conferences since the crash, officials and airline executives have been asked what information crew got from traffic control and why both planes ended up on the same runway.

All passengers and crew were evacuated within 20 minutes of the crash, but the plane, engulfed in flames, burned for more than six hours, the airline said.

The JAL plane – flight 516 – was told to continue its approach to runway 34R at 5.43pm, and was given clearance to land at 5.45pm.

That was two minutes before authorities say the collision happened on the same runway at 5.47pm, according to air traffic control recordings posted at liveATC.net.

“Clear to land 34R Japan Airlines 516,” a director can be heard saying in one recording, referring to the passenger jet by its flight number.

The civil aviation department of Japan’s transport ministry did not immediately provide comment. Earlier, an official at Haneda airport had referred Reuters to the office.

Public broadcaster NHK was among media that said officials had offered conflicting reports on the orders given to the coast guard plane, raising questions over whether it was told to approach and stop before the runway or take off.

The Coast Guard has refused to comment on the circumstances of the crash.

Reuters could not clearly make out air traffic control orders given to the Coast Guard plane on recordings from liveATC.net.

The plane, one of six Coast Guard aircraft based at the airport, had been due to bring aid to regions hit by Monday’s earthquake of magnitude 7.6 that has killed 64, while survivors face freezing temperatures and prospects of heavy rain.

The accident forced the cancellation of 116 domestic, and four foreign, flights on Wednesday, the government said.

But emergency flights and high-speed train services were helping to ease the congestion, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters.

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