Land at the Wrong Airport? Why, I'd Never Do That
There are lots of ways for pilots to earn 30 seconds on the evening news, some good, but most not. The descriptors that begin or end with phrases like “he was a good, careful pilot” are the unfortunate ones, since the airman in question isn’t likely to be breathing so he can’t see himself on TiVo. On the other hand, some survivors might not want to see themselves. I suspect the crew who landed that Boeing Dreamlifter freighter at Jabara airport in Wichita instead of their destination, McConnell Air Force Base, might be in that group.
You can read the details and hear the ATC tape here and it’s worth a listen to see the interesting conversation with the tower that ensued after an Atlas Air crew stuffed the converted 747 into Jabara’s 6000 feet instead of the 12,000-footer at McConnell nine miles south, where they were supposed to land. (Can you change the auto brake setting in the last 500 feet of the runway?)
The freckled-necked masses are perfectly justified in asking how such a thing could happen and any pilot who concedes that he doesn’t actually walk on water should, without a moment’s hesitation answer, well, let me explain.
Have you ever done the deed? Landed where you didn’t intend to with a perfectly functioning airplane? I haven’t, but I’ve come perilously close before being bailed out by a moment of undiluted competence in an otherwise steady drizzle of ineptitude. A bored controller on a mid-shift may have helped. Just about everywhere airports of similar size are close enough to be easily mistaken for each other. Along the Connecticut coast, New Haven and Bridgeport are but 12 miles apart and approaching from the east, as I was one night in the pre-GPS days, Bridgeport’s beacon and runways were far more visible. What do you do when you see a runway at 1 a.m.? The moth to flame trick.
Intending New Haven, I flew right past it with Bridgeport clearly in sight. Three miles out, I realized the runways didn’t line up and confirmed my error by, you know, actually tuning the right navaid. Or any navaid. The tower was closed, but just as I keyed up the mic to inform approach, the controller said, “Hey, Zero Delta Bravo, you do realize you flew past New Haven, right?” I was able to confidently reply that of course I knew this, I was merely completing a wide circle because I had intended to land with a quartering tailwind all along and needed a nine-mile final. He got the joke and allowed as how quite a few pilots fly into New Haven the same way. No harm, no foul, but I was still wishing for an aviation version of Ctrl-Z.
I’m sure the Atlas Air crew was, too. But consider this: on the east side of Wichita, there are no fewer than six airports within a radius of about 20 miles and it being Kansas with its prairie winds, all of them have about the same runway alignment, all swimming in a sea of urban lights. Despite half of it poised to move to China, Wichita is still the air capital of the world, after all. You have to wonder if the Wichita City Planning Board had a meeting to discuss how to set up a target fixation test course, because that area certainly is. I’ll concede that in the age of GPS and highly trained air transport crews, the checks and balances should preclude such a thing and I do wonder what ATC was up to when the lifter descended below pattern altitude nine miles from the threshold. Ah, but nothing’s perfect. If you’d like to cast the first stone, the comment section is stacked with rocks. Just remember that the phrase “cleared for the visual” is sometimes the equivalent of a Novocain shot to the brain.
Me, I’m just happy I got to New Haven before the bars closed.