Tokyo, Japan - On January 2, 2024, an Airbus A350 operated by Japan Airlines collided with a Bombardier Dash 8-300 operated by the Japan Coast Guard moments after touching down in Toyko. The A350, carrying 379 occupants at the time, skidded to a stop approximately 3,275 feet from the point of impact. The initial video and ensuing shots of the scene were unnerving, but incredibly, all occupants aboard the widebody aircraft were able to evacuate safely. Only 14 passengers suffered minor injuries during the process.
Devastatingly, the same cannot be said about the Japan Coast Guard's plane. Little remained of the turboprop regional adjacent to the point of impact, and five out of the six occupants did not survive the crash, the captain being the lone survivor. The aircraft was set to depart for Niigata to deliver supplies to the community following the tragic earthquakes that had taken place the day before.
This was the first hull loss for the Airbus A350 family. Further, it was one of the first accidents involving an aircraft with a carbon fiber frame. The hundreds of passengers have received high praise for executing a flawless evacuation, primarily attributed to little effort being made to collect personal belongings from overhead compartments during the evacuation.
What We Know
The Airbus A350, registered JA13XJ, operated as Japan Airlines Flight 516, a regularly scheduled domestic hop from Sapporo. The Airbus A350 was designed for long-haul flights upward of twenty hours, but many Japanese domestic sectors are so dense that it has been common for widebody aircraft to fly short hops between missions for several decades. After an hour and change in flight, Flight 516 was cleared to land on Haneda's Runway 34R, which the flight crew acknowledged.
Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard plane was instructed by air traffic control to taxi to "holding point C5 for Runway 34R." This instruction came from the Ground controller, and it is unclear whether or not the aircraft had switched to Tower frequency when Flight 516 was given its landing clearance. The flight crew continued past the holding point at C5 and lined up on Runway 34R, with no authorization given by air traffic control. Here, analysts have identified misinterpretation of instructions of some form, however specifics will come at a later point in the investigation.
The crew of Flight 516 has reported an uneventful approach with no abnormal observations. One pilot initially stated he saw something concerning, but no descriptive information had been provided, nor was it definitively identified as another plane. At 5:47PM local time, Flight 516 touched down immediately followed by a large jolt throughout the cabin. The crew did not even know the aircraft was engulfed in flames until being informed by a flight attendant. The #2 engine remained running for some time following completion of the evacuation.
As previously mentioned, five of the six crewmembers of the Dash 8 perished during the accident. However, the captain survived and has began to cooperate with investigators to paint a picture of what transpired in the flight deck prior to the collision. We can't be sure of specifics until the official findings are released, but the Coast Guard has began to claim the flight crew for the Dash 8 believed they were cleared for aircraft. The plane remained idle for approximately 40 seconds on the runway.
Further complicating the situation was the lack of an ADSB Mode C transponder on the Dash 8. Essentially, this would allow for live GPS tracking in communication with sophisticated ground radars. With antiquated equipment, it appears that air traffic control would have been far less likely to identify the mistaken instructions as they were also preoccupied with other aircraft.
How Did They Not See Each Other?
As previously mentioned, we do not yet know which radio frequency the Japan Coast Guard crew was on at the moment Flight 516 was cleared to land. Had they been on Tower, it would have been possible to overhear the landing clearance to give an indication an aircraft was approaching their runway. History further paints a harrowing picture that airplanes are not visible to pilots often in a see of lights.
On February 1, 1991, a US Air Boeing 737-300 collided with a SkyWest Metroliner on Los Angeles International Airport's Runway 24L. The Metroliner was given permission to taxi into position and hold, however the controller became confused and lost situational awareness. At the same time, a US Air Boeing 737-300 was cleared to land and continued toward Runway 24L.
Unfortunately, the Air Traffic Controller, Robin Wascher, did not recognize what was unfolding, and the Boeing 737 landed on top of the Metroliner. The aircraft skidded to a stop, killing 35 involved in the accident. During the ensuing investigation, the NTSB found that due to the complex "sea of lights" that the crew would not have seen the Metroliner until seconds before impact, if at all.
The two aircraft are in very different stages of their airframe cycles. The Airbus A350-900 was only delivered to Japan Air Lines in November 2021. Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard DeHavilland Dash 8-300 was delivered direct to the agency from the DeHavilland factory in Canada in 2009. It has flown missions since 2009, and is comparable to what the Metroliner would have looked like sitting idly on the runway.
JA13XJ, the Airbus A350-900, pictures at Haneda just days before the incident.
Photo: OMGcat via Planespotters.net.
JA722A, the Japan Coast Guard aircraft involved in the incident.
Photo: Sierra Aviation Photography
That about sums it up, for now. Hopefully, safety efforts moving forward point out the miraculous evacuation of all the Flight 516 passengers. There is a lot that can be learned from this accident about how smoothly things will flow during evacuation when passengers are preoccupied trying to remove personal belongings. It did not take very long at all for the airframe to be wholly consumed in fire after evacuation was complete.
Stay tuned for future news following the accident investigation.