Miracle or training? How the Japan Airlines crew managed to evacuate a burning plane in less than 20 minutes and save 367 passengers

One day after the crash between a passenger plane Japan Airlines (JAL) and an aircraft from the Coast Guard japanese in the haneda airport of Tokyo, aviation safety experts celebrate the “miraculous” evacuation of the commercial flight carried out by the crew. The quick action of the flight attendants before the Airbus A350 was consumed by flames prevented a tragedy that could have been much worse: although five people died on the coast guard plane, the 367 Japan Airlines passengers They came out safe and sound. Also the 12 crew members. All.

The praise was due to the fact that Japan Airlines was able to evacuate all passengers safely under what was probably a huge pressure. As terrified passengers watched flames licking the windows and the cabin filling with smoke, JAL crew members hid their concern and resorted to every last detail of their safety training.

According to the airline, The 367 passengers and 12 crew disembarked in less than 20 minutes. Some accounts claim that the entire evacuation was done in just 90 seconds, others speak of five minutes, which is still a good time considering the conditions in which it occurred.

When firefighters arrived to begin extinguishing the flames, the crew had already deployed the evacuation slides, allowing nearly 400 people, including several children, to slide to safety. About 10 minutes after disembarking, an explosion occurred on the plane, according to witnesses. “I can only say it was a miracle… we could have died if we were late,” said Tsubasa Sawada, a passenger.

The 379 passengers and crew of the Japanese company Japan Airlines (JAL) plane that caught fire this Tuesday on the runway of Haneda airport, in Tokyo (Japan). EFE/ Jiji Press EDITORIAL USE ONLY (JIJI PRESS/)

The three keys

They were key to the success of the evacuation three factorsaccording to experts:

1. The maneuver of the pilot: that stopped the plane, which was skidding and looking like a fireball, on its nose.

2. The performance of the crewwho, unable to use the broken public address system, calmly gave instructions through megaphones.

3. The passenger cooperationwho remained seated before heading to the evacuation slides, leaving their hand luggage at the mercy of the flames.

Among the factors that allowed the passengers to escape was the fact that there was little smoke inside the cabin, allowing the passengers to see and breathe, although with difficulty. If the smoke had been thicker and caused some people to faint, things might have been different.

Finally, an element frequently cited by experts is that the Airbus 350 that caught fire is a relatively recent aircraft (it has been in service since 2015) and is built with a innovative material, a carbon fiber polymer that, among other things, is specifically designed to retard combustion. This is something that can be seen quite clearly in the videos of the accident: the Airbus starts to catch fire immediately after impact with the Coast Guard plane, but the flames take many minutes to spread widely: these are the minutes that allowed the crew to escape. passengers.

The experts: “What they did was amazing”

Ed Galeaprofessor and director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the British University of Greenwich, described the evacuation of the Japan Airlines Airbus A350 as “miraculous work.”

When the plane came to a stop, the nose gear collapsed, throwing the aircraft nose down with the tail up. Galea said on social media that images showed that passengers were evacuated through two of the exits at the front of the plane, and one exit at the rear. Some of the “Passengers essentially had to climb a hill through smoke”, said. “A cabin crew member stood in the back waving a flashlight, urging them to come closer.”

Maggie Kuwasakispokesperson for Japan Airlines, confirmed to the media that, due to the fire, only three doors were used for evacuation. Japan Airlines crews are trained to evacuate all passengers within 90 seconds, Kuwasaki said. The crew was able to confirm that all passengers had been evacuated at 18:05he added.

Trisha FergusonCEO of Interaction Group, a company that designs security cards for airplanes, told the New York Times that the fact that all the passengers managed to disembark safely in what could otherwise have been a fatal accident, demonstrated the success of the cooperation between passengers and staff.

“The crew’s reaction times were spectacular”said Ferguson, an aviation industry expert with 28 years of experience in passenger safety education. “What they did was amazing.”, he added. Something key highlighted by the experts was that None of the passengers took time to collect their carry-on luggage from the overhead compartments.thus ensuring a clear route to the emergency exits.

This also appeared to be due to Japan Airlines’ high safety standards. Alex Macherasaviation analyst, told the BBC Japan Airlines is known for being a leader in safety. Less than two hours before the crash, passengers had watched a JAL safety video urging them to do exactly that. In the video, a flight attendant warns: “Leave your luggage when you evacuate!”, spreading his palms open for emphasis. An animated sequence then shows the damage that suitcases and high heels can cause to inflatable evacuation slides.

The plane was almost completely burned (Kyodo/REUTERS)
The plane was almost completely burned (Kyodo/REUTERS) (KYODO/)

John Coxpilot and founder of an aviation safety consultancy based in the United States, told Guardian that the cabin crew “did an extraordinarily good job” getting passengers off the plane so quickly. “It shows good training,” he said. “And if you look at the video, people are not trying to get things out of the overhead compartments. They are focused on getting off the plane”.

“The cabin crew must have done an excellent job. It seems there was no carry-on luggage. It was a miracle that all the passengers got off.“, he added to the British newspaper Paul Hayesdirector of aviation safety at UK-based aviation consultancy Ascend by Cirium.

The lessons learned after the 1985 tragedy

The rigorous emphasis on safety during evacuation stems from improved aircraft design and tightening standards across the industry. As part of the safety testing of the new aircraft, airlines must demonstrate that all passengers can be evacuated within 90 seconds. In the 1970s and 1980s, emergency training focused primarily on the crew, Ferguson explained to the NYTbut in the 1990s and 2000s a new emphasis was placed on educating passengers about how to react in an emergency.

But the success of Tuesday’s evacuation also had to do with the Lessons learned by JAL after the accident of August 12, 1985, when a JAL jumbo jet crashed into a mountain en route from Tokyo to Osaka, killing 520 of the 524 people on board. That accident, Considered the deadliest in aviation history involving a single planecaused the airline to take extreme safety measures and is today considered a “world leader” in this field.

Japan Airlines Flight 123
Rescuers work on the wreckage of the Boeing 747 that crashed on August 12, 1985. (Getty Images)

Although the cause was attributed to a faulty repair by Boeing engineers and not pilot error, the accident and its consequences have left a indelible mark on the company’s safety culture. So much so that, almost four decades later, the website airlineratings.com considers Japan Airlines one of the safest airlines in the world.

“Japan has a phenomenal record on transportation safety”declared to the BBC The teacher Graham Braithwaitedirector of transportation systems at Britain’s Cranfield University, who called JAL a “world leader” in safety.

“The evacuation has been a success and is a reminder of how much has been invested in cabin crew training,” he added. “His priority is safety. “They are the last to evacuate the plane and, at first glance, it looks like they have done an incredible job.”