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Typically, I’m not a nervous flyer at all. I’ve flown countless miles without incident, usually from my preferred window seat. Sure, there have been rough landings and shaky takeoffs, but that is a fairly normal experience for a frequent flyer. Nothing, though, prepared me for what I experienced Tuesday morning on Japan Airlines flight 6.

We had just taken off from Tokyo’s Haneda airport bound for New York JFK, when our heavily loaded Boeing 777-300ER experienced a jolt on takeoff, then another, then more. It was the beginning of an hourlong ordeal that would bring us back on the ground at Haneda in an emergency landing, after one of our two engines had caught fire. The emergency landing made the news in Japan and around the world — and now, sitting on the replacement flight that’s bringing me and my fellow passengers from JL6 to New York, I am using Japan Airline’s onboard Wi-Fi to recount the morning’s adventure.

To complete a day of unexpected twists, the original report of what had caused the engine flames — a bird strike during, or just after, takeoff — was disproved when Japan Airlines said it had found no evidence of birds hitting the plane, and that the incident may have been a case of engine trouble.

The Boeing 777 with its left engine spewing fire after being struck by birds. (Screen cap from TBS News)
The Boeing 777 with its left engine spewing fire. Screen shot from TBS News.

Later, the Japan Transport Safety Board was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that it had classified the case as a “serious incident” with dozens of turbine blades damaged, but no trace of a bird strike, in the General Electric GE90 engine. (The investigation is continuing.)

I was coming back from a quick jaunt to Singapore I had booked after seeing a JAL deal for flights from New York (JFK) to Singapore (SIN) from $328, I jumped at the chance for a long Labor Day weekend with a friend in Singapore, and got there uneventfully via Tokyo Narita (NRT). The JAL 777-300ER offers one of the best economy class experiences — between the food and the service, it was one of the better long-haul economy flights I’ve had— and our return journey also began without a hitch, with a first leg from Singapore Changi (SIN) to Haneda (HND).

Everything on JAL Flight 6 had been smooth. The boarding procedure, safety announcements from the crew and other pre-departure rituals unfolded smoothly. I took my window seat in row 53, behind the wing and just a few rows in front of the 777’s rear lavatories. (Not ideal, but for $328 I couldn’t complain.)

I’m the kind of flyer who falls asleep before takeoff, and this time was no exception. I dozed off as the aircraft, with 233 passengers and 15 crew, made its way to the runway. As usual the roar of the engines as we were taking off didn’t wake me.

But what did wake me was a flash and a loud blasting noise. I was tired and already travel-weary after the long flight from SIN, so I wasn’t sure that what I was seeing was real or a bad dream: flames were streaming in front of my face, just out of the window. I took a look around the cabin to make sure I wasn’t the only person seeing this. Perhaps I was just imagining it in my disoriented state.

But there was no mistaking the heat, or the third and then fourth, and then more, blasts that jolted the plane. Every two to three seconds, the engine on my side would spew out flames, accompanied by a sound that echoed like a loud blast and a jolting motion. But we were already in the air and climbing, so we continued to ascend. I was too shaken to even think about taking photos, and it would take me a while before I had enough presence of mind to pull out my phone and start shooting. 

The track of flight JL6 showing the circling around HND before its emergency landing. (Image from Flightaware)
The track of flight JL6 showing the circling around HND before its emergency landing. Image from Flightaware.

From what I could tell, I was one of just a few passengers in the rear of the economy cabin who had left my window shade open on takeoff, which could explain why not many people on board were as panicked as I was, with a jet engine on fire just a few feet from me. Much to my surprise, we kept ascending. After cruising at a somewhat steady altitude not too high off the ground, we continued to ascend.

It was then that the captain first came on the intercom, informing passengers — in Japanese, then in English — that one of the engines had failed on takeoff and we would be making an emergency landing back at HND in about 30 minutes. He didn’t mention birds, which we would not be told about until after landing.

About 10 minutes into the flight, I could see fuel being dumped out of the left wing. We made three or four circles in a holding pattern while we dumped fuel so we were light enough to land. The process took about 30-40 minutes. The crew then informed us that we were, in fact, dumping fuel because of the engine failure and would be landing in another 30 minutes.

Flight attendants then made their way around the cabin, answering any questions and concerns from passengers. They brought out trays of water, as the air conditioning had cut out and was getting rather warm in the cabin. All crew, from those in command to the flight attendants in the cabin, remained incredibly calm throughout the entire process.

After about one hour from takeoff, the captain came on the intercom to inform us that we’d dumped enough fuel to land at HND. The landing was fairly smooth — nothing eventful. When we had slowed, there was a noticeable emergency responder presence: fire trucks and ambulances followed us to a remote parking position, away from the terminal.

Upon landing and turning on my phone, I began to see news reports that we had been hit by a bird, or birds. For the duration of the flight, the crew had told us it was an engine failure — never did we hear that it was a bird strike. Hitting a bird is a one in 2,000 chance, and we thought this was what had happened to us: bird in the engine, causing engine failure, fortunately only in one of the Boeing 777’s two.

After we pulled in to our parking spot,  emergency vehicles not far behind, mechanics and other emergency responders swarmed around the plane, taking photos of the engine and fuselage. I could also spot two helicopters flying overhead.

After a brief 15- or 20-minute wait, we were then informed that we would be bussed back to the terminal before finding out more.

Only once we had arrived back at HND’s International Terminal did I realize how big of a story it was. There was a fairly large press contingent trying to talk to passengers about the experience. JAL employees ushered passengers up several flights of escalators, past the press and through the terminal to the JAL Sakura Lounge.

Communication from JAL to passengers from then on was exemplary. There were plenty of employees there to address all of our needs, and the lounge kept us comfortable and fed. Not long after we’d arrived in the lounge the JAL staffers informed us that we’d all been placed on a new JL6 flight to JFK, which was set to depart at 4:50pm — from where I write this story now.

It wasn’t until hours later, over the US West on that replacement JAL flight, that we learned our misadventure probably had not been caused by birds. “JAL has confirmed that the cause of engine failure was not bird strike and [an] investigation is currently [underway] to determine the cause,” a Japan Airlines spokesperson told TPG in an email.

There is one thing I already know for sure, though: I may be an experienced flyer, but I had never been this scared on an airplane before.

Correction: This article has been amended to remove references to a bird strike as cause of the incident, after Japan Airlines said it had not found evidence of one, contrary to earlier reports.    

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