Blame pinned on air traffic controllers

Incorrect radio instruction likely led to jetliners' near-miss

Confusion apparently led an air traffic controller to guide one Japan Airlines jetliner into the path of another, but it was only the first of several miscommunications that led to a near disaster earlier in the week, transport ministry officials admitted Friday.

The result was that one plane passed 10 meters directly under the other — disaster being avoided only when one of the pilots took his plane into a sudden dive.

The maneuver injured 42 passengers and crew members.

The mistake apparently came when air traffic controllers told the wrong plane to descend.

At that time, one minute before the near-miss, JAL Flight 907, going from Tokyo to Naha, was climbing toward 39,000 feet over Shizuoka Prefecture, while JAL Flight 985, en route from Seoul to Tokyo, was cruising at an altitude of 37,000 feet.

This put the planes on a collision course.

One of the controllers, a trainee for the airspace sector, had intended to order JAL 985, which was carrying 250 passengers, to descend to avoid collision.

But he mistakenly hailed JAL 907, with 427 passengers aboard, and ordered it to descend, ministry officials quoted the trainee as saying.

“JAL 907, descend and maintain flight level 3-5-0 (35,000 feet), begin descent due to traffic,” the male trainee said at 3:54 p.m., according to the radio transcript released by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry. The pilot of JAL 907 repeated the order on the radio and began descending as instructed.

But neither the trainee nor the qualified controller instructing him noticed that the instruction was given to the wrong plane, the ministry officials said.

Why the controller gave the order for JAL 907 to descend has been a focus of the ongoing investigation into the incident, along with the exact locations and altitudes of the two jetliners at the time of the near-disaster.

The ministry interviewed the two controllers on Thursday and Friday and later released the outline of the interview to the media at a news conference.

The ministry officials quoted the two controllers as saying that they believed the incorrect call probably led to the near-miss.

The officials, carefully choosing their words, did not clearly pinpoint the cause of the accident, saying an official investigation is under way by an independent air accident investigative committee. But Seiji Hirai, chief of the ministry’s Air Traffic Control Division, said the incident would not have happened if the radio instructions had been correct.

“We are really sorry for losing people’s trust in air traffic control,” Hirai told the press conference.

The two controllers work at the Tokyo Air Control Center in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. The center is responsible for wide areas of airspace including the Joetsu, Tohoku, Kanto, part of Kinki, Chubu and Hokuriku regions.

A total of 418 controllers, qualified for at least one airspace sector, are now working at the center, while 87 of them are in training for other sectors they have not been certified for.

The ministry officials said

they will immediately start examining what can be done to improve control operations, launching an in-house task force later in the day.

During Friday’s news conference, the ministry officials also explained the controllers’ intentions behind other confusing orders that were given to the two jetliners before and after the near-miss.

After the trainee issued the descent order to the wrong pilot, he noticed that JAL 958 did not descend but continued to cruise at the same altitude.

He twice instructed JAL 958 to turn right, but the call apparently was not heard by the pilot.

The trainee’s supervising controller, intending to order JAL 907 to ascend, then interrupted and ordered “JAL 957” to immediately climb.

That was the second time a flight number was garbled; there was no JAL Flight 957 in the area at that time. The controller used the wrong call number because she was confused, ministry officials explained.

Earlier in the day, JAL President Isao Kaneko apologized for causing “great trouble” to the 42 people who were injured in Wednesday’s near-miss but declined to comment on how two jets came within 10 meters of each other.

“I felt keenly sorry for causing great trouble when I saw people hospitalized yesterday,” Kaneko said of the injuries that occurred on one aircraft.

“We’re willing to cooperate with the (transport ministry’s) air accident committee to make clear the cause (of the incident),” he said.

Kaneko carefully avoided attempting to lay blame on any party — controllers, pilots or JAL.

JAL also declined to disclose any new details in reports filed by Capt. Makoto Watanabe of JAL Flight 907, which was heading to Naha from Tokyo, and Capt. Tatsuyuki Akazawa of Flight 958, en route from Seoul to Tokyo.

But during the press conference, JAL executive Hiroyasu Hagio quoted the two pilots as saying they believed they did “their best” to avoid a collision but feel responsible for injuring many people.

Return Yokota: Ishihara

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara on Friday reiterated his call for the United States to return Yokota Air Base, claiming “the invisible walls” of U.S.-controlled airspace contributed to Wednesday’s near-collision between two JAL jetliners over Shizuoka Prefecture.

Ishihara told a regular news conference that the necessity of avoiding airspace controlled by the air base caused the congestion that led to Wednesday’s near-collision. He claims that reducing U.S military-controlled airspace is necessary to secure more flight routes for Tokyo’s Haneda airport, saying Yokota divides Japan’s airspace into east and west because it stretches from the Izu Peninsula to Niigata Prefecture.

He said the incident renewed his belief that Japan should take more initiative in controlling Yokota’s airspace.