Japan coast guard plane not cleared for takeoff before deadly runway crash, air traffic control transcript suggests

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A Japanese coast guard aircraft which collided with a passenger plane at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport was instructed only to “taxi to holding point” and had not been cleared for takeoff, an official transcript of air traffic control communications released Wednesday suggests.

The fatal accident saw Japan Airlines flight 516 crash into the coast guard aircraft after touching down on the runway on Tuesday, causing it to erupt into a terrifying fireball.

All 379 people on the Japan Airlines (JAL) plane were safely evacuated. Five of the six crew members on the smaller coast guard aircraft died, according to Japanese transport minister Tetsuo Saito.

Saito on Wednesday released the transcript of more than four minutes of communications between air traffic controllers and the two planes immediately before the accident, which indicates the Japan Airlines flight had been given permission to land but does not show clear takeoff approval for the coast guard aircraft.

In a further development, publicly available records appeared to suggest that out-of-service warning lights – designed to stop pilots from erroneously taxiing onto the runway – could have been another factor in the crash.

Air traffic control gave the JAL passenger plane permission to land on runway 34R at 5:43:26 p.m. local time (3:43:26 a.m. ET), according to the transcript.

However, the transcript does not show clear takeoff approval for the coast guard aircraft, instead telling it to “taxi to holding point” at 5:45:11 p.m. (3:45:11 a.m. ET). The crew of the coast guard plane confirmed the instruction seconds later, according to the transcript.

About two minutes later, the JAL flight collided with the coast guard plane on the runway, according to the timestamp on airport surveillance video.

Transport Secretary Saito told reporters Wednesday that the incident is “still being investigated” and the next step will be to listen to the audio recording of the conversation between the coast guard pilot and flight control tower.

He added that the transport ministry is taking every precaution to prevent such an accident from occurring again.

In a briefing following Saito’s press conference, officials from the Japan Transportation Safety Board (JTSB) said they had retrieved the flight and voice recorders of the coast guard aircraft. However, they added that they were still looking for those of the JAL plane.

Another factor that could potentially be probed as part of the investigation into Tuesday’s collision is that the runway lights — known as runway stop bar lights and designed to stop pilots from erroneously taxiing onto the runway — may have been out of service, according to publicly available records.

A bulletin to pilots said stop bar lighting is “unserviceable” from taxiways C1 to C14, which includes the taxiway where Haneda tower controllers told the coast guard flight to hold and await takeoff clearance. The notice — or NOTAM — was first publicly posted on December 25, 2023, and remains active.

A JTBS official told reporters that the air traffic controller cleared the JAL plane to land on runway 34R and instructed the coast guard aircraft “to hold point.”

The release of the transcript comes after Japan Airlines said in a statement late Tuesday that its crew had been cleared to land by air traffic control prior to the collision.

Audio from appears to detail the crew reading back a clearance order for runway 34, saying “cleared to land 34 right.”

Japan Airlines has pledged its full cooperation in the investigation to determine responsibility for the deadly crash.

Passengers who were onboard the Japan Airlines plane, an Airbus A350, as well as witnesses to the collision have described terror giving way to relief as it became clear everyone onboard survived.

Incredibly, Japan Airlines said only one person on board its plane received bruises, but 13 “requested medical consultation due to physical discomfort.”

Runway incursions, as incidents of this type are classed, are “rare but can be catastrophic,” according to Graham Braithwaite, professor of safety and accident investigation at the UK’s Cranfield University.

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