The devastating 9.0 earthquake last week in Japan and the resultant tsunami had an immediate effect on all aviation operations to, from, and in Japan. Departing flights were halted, incoming flights re-routed, and a number of domestic Japanese airports were damaged, notably the regional airport in Sendai, near the epicenter.
Shutting off outgoing and incoming air traffic at all major airports around the country was a necessity until engineers could determine the extent of any damage to runways, taxiways, control towers, and, of course, aircraft. (Japan has a very robust civil aviation authority—rated category one by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—but it may request assistance from the US in assessing damage at airports in the hardest hit areas.)
Japan’s two largest international airports—Haneda and Narita—were back up and running with 24 hours. A check of departures and arrivals at both airports showed only a few delays and no cancellations. And both airports report that rolling blackouts scheduled for the Tokyo area will not be imposed there. The biggest issue for both airports is that both are easiest to access by rail, which has taken longer to get back up and running.
The damage to automobile and aviation infrastructure in the northeast of Japan, closest to the greatest effect of the earthquake and tsunami, means that rotorcraft aviation will be the only way to move rescuers and supplies in and out.
Helicopters will be put to good use because of their ability to land in just about any open area to drop off supplies, move search and rescue teams from place to place, and evacuate the sick and injured. The Japanese Defense Force has an effective air force for rescue operations, and our own Navy has moved fleet and aviation assets in to assist with relief efforts.
There will be little effect on US commercial flights to Japan because most international operations occur in and out of Narita and Haneda. Both those airports might see an increase in charter flights from around the world as the US and other countries send in specialty search and rescue groups and supplies.
But even amidst heightened tragedy and traffic, the FAA indicated that Japan’s commitment to ASPIRE, the Asia and Pacific Initiative to Reduce Emissions, likely will not change.
In 2009, Japan joined the FAA and the civil aviation authorities of other Asia-Pacific countries in increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions in the area. However, Japan will have to route aircraft away from the nuclear power sites currently in distress. This would have only a minor effect on the ASPIRE commitments, since passenger aircraft operate at much higher altitudes.
As for the effect on passengers, even taking off from Haneda or Narita, a commercial passenger aircraft would be at a safe altitude by the time it crossed the northeast area of the country.
Still, the nuclear sites will be given a wide berth, and aviation officials in Japan will monitor wind direction at various altitudes to assure no passengers are exposed to more radiation than they would normally get from a high-altitude flight.
First responders in air
Monitoring of radiation levels at different altitudes for low-level helicopter flights in that area is critical.
Within the past few days, a flight crew operating from the USS Ronald Reagan had to be decontaminated after a radiation alert went off in their aircraft as they were moving in supplies. The aircraft had flown through a previously undetected “plume” of radioactive air. None of the aircrew were seriously injured nor are any expected to have ill effects from the brief encounter.
One of the most moving stories about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl was that of a Soviet Army helicopter pilot who flew multiple trips into and from the radioactive zone to remove civilians. He kept this up until he literally died in his helicopter after landing.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that in Japan, though the heroism of both Japanese and American flight crews for successful rescue operations is certainly no less.
Isn’t that wonderfully ironic?
–Phyllis A. “Maggie” Duncan, Transition Voice Magazine
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