An unusual kind of runway incursion happened in Tokyo last week when authorities had to close a runway to take care of a wandering tortoise!
We know of bird strikes, we’ve heard of dog or even bear (!) strikes and of other unfortunate animals before. Whether in the air or on the ground, these incidents generally involve an element of speed, directly or by implication. But this can’t really be the case on this one.
The incident (if we can call it as such) happened last Friday, the 24th of September, at Narita International Airport (RJAA). At around 11:30 in the morning (local time) a pilot in a departing flight from Tokyo alerted the tower to the presence of a tortoise on the runway. Airport authorities immediately sent out a crew to do a runway inspection.
The crew found a 2.1kg (4.6lbs) tortoise very close to the centreline of runway 16R/34L. Animal handlers removed the animal from the runway. They quickly determined that it had come from a retention pond, near the airport’s fence, next to the runway. The distance the escaping Tokyo tortoise covered was approximately 160 metres (525 feet). But that’s if it travelled in a straight line, which is unlikely.
We don’t know how long the tortoise spent on the runway in Tokyo, before its discovery. It’s entirely possible that it had been there for previous take-offs, without someone noticing. But when it was noticed, the runway closure lasted 12 minutes. This impacted five flights preparing for departure from runway 16R that morning.
The Tokyo Tortoise And The (much bigger) Sea Turtle
And there’s a twist here. One of these five aircraft, was an All-Nippon Airways (ANA) Airbus A380, with tail number JA381A. This happens to be ANA’s “blue sea turtle” special livery A380! ANA normally operates this aircraft on international routes from Tokyo Haneda (RJTT) airport. But lately, they have been using them on domestic routes from Narita, as in this case.
The flight, already delayed before the tortoise discovery, eventually left Tokyo at 11:52 am local. Its destination was Naha (ROAH) in Okinawa. Even better, this was the inaugural flight of this route (NH2023). Commenting on the occasion, ANA stated that they hope the tortoise will bring them luck, which it should. After all, the reason this and another A380 have the sea turtle livery is that they fly to Hawaii, where these animals are considered lucky!
While a tortoise escaping a retaining pond in Tokyo was apparently a first-time event, the same isn’t true everywhere. New York’s JFK borders marshy land, to its south. So personnel doing runway inspections are actually on the lookout for turtles, of all types. Elsewhere, spare a thought for the many airport ground staff in Florida, that are keeping an eye open for the odd alligator.
Finally, some kudos has to go to the pilot who spotted the tortoise during a take-off roll in Tokyo. We don’t know the exact position of the tortoise on the runway. But we know the position of the retaining pond. And based on that, the tortoise was around 900 metres (2,950 feet) from where that aircraft started its take-off roll. We don’t know the aircraft type, but for comparison, that ANA A380 was doing 100 knots (ground speed) at that part of the runway!