Narita airport, Japan’s busiest international gateway, which opened in 1978, saw its first fatalities from an air accident there on the morning of March 23, when a FedEx MD-11 cargo plane crashed and burst into flames. The pilot and copilot, the only crew members, were killed.

The fatalities were also the first ever for a FedEx aircraft. If it had involved a passenger plane, the accident could have turned into an even more catastrophic disaster. Authorities must pinpoint the cause of the accident to help prevent similar incidents.

At about 6:50 a.m. on March 23, the FedEx cargo plane, arriving from China’s Guangzhou, crashed on the airport’s main, 4,000-meter Runway A. The plane’s front section bounced off the runway twice before the plane tipped onto its left side and burst into flames. The left wing was destroyed and the plane rolled over. The fire was distinguished shortly after 9 a.m.

The FedEx plane had undergone regular maintenance — which is scheduled every month or every 500 flight hours — two days before the accident, and no irregularities were found.

On March 23, aircraft started landing at Narita at 6 a.m. Winds up to 72 kph were blowing mainly from the northwest. Before the accident, 12 aircraft had landed safely under these conditions, including a Japan Airlines jumbo jet and a Nippon Cargo Airlines jumbo jet (which landed 10 minutes and four minutes, respectively, before the accident). Crews aboard 10 of the 12 aircraft reported to the control tower that there was wind shear — sudden changes in wind speed and direction — along the descent route. The pilot of the JAL jumbo jet reported wind shear at or below an altitude of 600 meters.

It is imperative that Japanese and U.S. transport safety authorities carefully analyze the data in the plane’s flight and voice recorders to determine what conditions existed and what actions the FedEx crew took just before the accident. Although the cause of the accident has not yet been determined, the tragedy underscores the importance of pilots’ and air controllers’ judgment and actions when they are forced to cope with quickly changing meteorological conditions.

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