Devastating Quake and Tsunami hits Airport Operations

United States Air Force personnel carry out meteorological tests at the stricken Sendai Airport. (USAF)

United States Air Force personnel carry out meteorological tests at the stricken Sendai Airport. (USAF)

THE VARYING effects of the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, that later smashed into the North East Japanese coast killing more than 10,000 people also impacted many aspects of the aviation industry.

The sheer force of the quake – the worst suffered in Japan for 140 years – brought much of the country’s commercial aviation to a temporary halt as damage assessments were made among fears of significant aftershocks.  The earthquake itself didn’t cause any serious damage to either Tokyo’s Haneda or Narita Airports, though there was minor damage in the form a small internal roof collapse inside one of Haneda’s terminals.  Both Haneda and Narita were closed for several hours while safety checks were made and hundreds of flights were diverted.  So far there are no reports of any casualties being suffered at airports. However, television pictures of the Tsunami sweeping across the apron at Japan’s Sendai Airport (IATA SDJ), lying much closer to the epicentre of the quake and directly in the path of the giant wave, were beamed across the world.  The airport’s elevation varies between 6-to-20 ft (2-7m) above sea level and, judging by the TV pictures of water surrounding its airbridges, the water appeared to be around 10ft (3m) deep as it crossed the airport.  Considerable damage was caused at the regional airport and several light aircraft, vehicles and other facilities were destroyed by either the force of the water or the immersion in salt water.  A fire broke out at Sendai Airport shortly after the giant wave struck, but it is not known if any fatalities were suffered at the airport itself, even though the surrounding area was completely devastated.  Fortunately no airliners were on the ground when the wave struck.  A United States Air Force MC-130H Hercules was the first fixed-wing aircraft to land at the airport after the water had subsided, bringing in a number of military personnel who were able to clear the runway of debris, thereby opening it to inbound humanitarian flights.
A tsunami warning was subsequently issued for the entire Pacific basin except for the mainland United States and Canada, but the Hawaiian airports of Hilo, Honolulu, Kahului and Lihue were temporarily closed in preparation for a tsunami strike and the ground equipment that could be moved was repositioned on higher ground.  In the event, no damage was suffered.
The earthquake led to a series of explosions at the Japanese nuclear power station at Fukujima, north east of Tokyo, causing risk and fear of widespread radiation leaks.  On March 15, a statement by the European Central Flow Management Unit (CFMU) warned of possible ‘nuclear clouds’ and an obvious potential risk to people on flights that may enter them, so a number of airlines decided to either divert or cancel flights to and from Japan.  Because of the potential dangers from either radiation or further aftershocks, some long-haul carriers temporarily stopped using Tokyo as an overnight location for their flight crews and chose to operate to and from Tokyo via other major Asian airports to facilitate the necessary crew changes.
At some international airports, passengers flying in from Japan were required to undergo a radiation screening test when they arrived at immigration or security check points.
However, on March 18 ICAO issued a statement based on advice received from the World Health Organisation that said that there was no medical basis for imposing flight restriction to Japan, adding: “screening for radiation of international passengers from Japan is not considered necessary at this time.  Currently available information indicates that increased [radiation] levels have been detected at some airports, but these do not represent any health risk.”
Warnings about flights to Japan were withdrawn the following day.   Nevertheless, over 10,000 passengers were reported stranded at Tokyo’s major airports as people tried to escape the country and several nations sent flights to evacuate their citizens.  Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force’s Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi was also hit by the tsunami, possibly destroying up to 18 of its F-2 fighters and a number of other aircraft.  The Defence Ministry said aircraft had been submerged in seawater as well as some pushed into the side of buildings by the force of the wave.