National

Air inquiry faults control tower after JAL near-miss with car

by Alastair Wanklyn

Staff Writer

A JAL jet narrowly averted tragedy when it landed on a runway that was blocked by a maintenance vehicle. It accelerated and took off, missing the vehicle by a few meters, the Japan Transport Safety Board said in a final report Friday.

An air traffic controller cleared the Boeing 767 to land at Tokushima Airport in Shikoku on April 5, 2015, despite earlier allowing a maintenance worker to drive onto the runway to replace burned-out lamps.

“It is probable that the tower … had forgotten about the presence of the work vehicle,” the report said.

The inquiry blamed the sole controller on duty at the time, who was likely distracted.

The incident highlights the pressures such personnel face, particularly when handling multiple tasks without a second pair of eyes to watch for mistakes.

At 10:40 a.m. on the day, a maintenance worker radioed the tower for permission to drive a vehicle onto the runway to replace bulbs in marker lights. This was granted.

The tower controller then became occupied in clearing an unrelated aircraft for departure.

When approaching flight JA455 radioed in at 10:53 a.m., the tower operator cleared it to land.

The plane touched down in poor visibility about 550 meters from the car. At that moment, a pilot spotted a flashing light on the car and threw the engines into acceleration.

The plane gathered speed and took off again, passing over the vehicle at an estimated altitude of 40 feet (12 meters), the report said.

There were no injuries among the 67 people aboard.

The pilots’ actions were seen as all the more creditable because there was poor visibility amid light rain, and a strong crosswind meant the landing was a difficult one, the report said.

The JTSB said controllers typically use a simple trick to remind themselves when a runway is closed by hanging a large sign over a set of dials in front of them. In this instance, the controller did not do this.

An aircraft landing on a closed runway is classed as a serious incident under Japan’s civil aviation law.

The JTSB said it informed authorities in the U.S., as is normal given that the jet was made by an American manufacturer.

In July last year, bleary-eyed JAL pilots accelerated a Boeing 767 for takeoff down a taxiway rather than a runway in the early hours at Singapore’s Changi Airport. JAL flight 38 bound for Haneda gathered speed before an alert air traffic controller noticed the mistake and radioed it to halt.

The two pilots failed to report the incident to the airline and were suspended.

Singapore’s Air Accident Investigation Board is expected to release a final report into that incident shortly.