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Japanese Jumbo Jets Nearly Collide

February 1, 2001

TOKYO (AP) _ Crowded skies and confusing instructions from inexperienced ground controllers may have contributed to a near collision between two jumbo jets carrying almost 700 passengers, officials said Thursday.

One of the pilots, 40-year-old Makoto Watanabe, told aviation officials that the two Japan Airlines craft came within just 33 feet of colliding over central Japan. He dived sharply in an attempt to avert a disaster, leaving 42 people injured, two seriously.

Immediately after the incident late Wednesday afternoon, Watanabe had told the control tower that the planes had come within 200 feet of each other.

Aviation officials at the Transportation Ministery have begun an investigation into the cause of the near collision of the Boeing 747 piloted by Watanabe and a DC-10.

``The most important thing now is to determine where responsibility lies and what the causes were,″ top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said.

Police were investigating the possibility of criminal negligence, Japanese news media reported, and attention was focusing on the inexperience of the tower personnel in Tokyo, who were responsible for some of Japan’s busiest air space.

A flight transcript revealed air traffic controllers addressed both pilots using mistaken flight numbers.

A 26-year-old trainee was working under the guidance of his 32-year-old supervisor, said Yukio Yoshida, an official with the ministry’s Air Traffic Control Division.

The trainee was certified for the job three years ago, and his supervisor had about nine years’ experience, media reports said, citing unidentified ministry sources.

The near collision took place at about 36,000 feet, about 94 miles west of Tokyo.

``The amount of traffic that controllers had to deal with will naturally be one of the things investigators will look at,″ said Tomihisa Ozaki, another Air Traffic Control Division official.

The pilots’ actions are also expected to be closely scrutinized.

Flight plans called for the two aircraft to come no closer than 2,000 feet.

The pilot of the DC-10, approaching Tokyo from Pusan, South Korea, did not respond to two requests from the trainee air controller to turn right, according to flight transcripts. Aviation officials said it was unclear why the pilot, Tatsuyuki Akazawa, 45, did not respond.

The trainee controller’s supervisor then broke in and ordered Akazawa to lower altitude _ mistakenly addressing him as JAL957 instead of JAL958.

The other pilot, Watanabe, entered a steep dive, ignoring an on-board computer system that advised him to ascend to avoid collision.

The sudden drop in altitude sent passengers, luggage and food service carts crashing into the ceiling of the 747′s cabin. Thirty of the injured required hospitalization, mostly for bruises and burns, said Isao Yamauchi, a spokesman for the Tokyo Fire Department.

Watanabe’s aircraft had taken off from Haneda airport in downtown Tokyo bound for the southern Japanese island of Okinawa with 411 passengers and 16 crew members aboard. It immediately returned without further incident.

The DC-10, which carried 237 passengers and 13 crew members, landed at Tokyo’s main international airport in Narita, about 40 miles northeast of the capital. Nobody aboard was injured.

A total of 15 near collisions were reported by pilots in Japanese air space between 1996 and 2000, aviation officials said.

Japan’s deadliest air disaster was in August 1985, when a Japan Airlines 747 plowed into a mountain near Tokyo, killing 520 of 524 people on board.

Update hourly