Land at the Wrong Airport? Why, I'd Never Do That

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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.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (15)

No stones to cast here. Our corporate operation being based at AAO we know how easy it can be to key on the wrong airport. It is one thing to approach the area in one's Cessna 120 and quite another to approach it at night in swept wing equipment. We confirm electronically before we commit visually.

One more item, the government chart of the 19L RNAV approach does not depict Jabara airport underneath final approach to IAB. Commercially available charts typically do depict underlying airports.

John Kliewer

Posted by: John Kliewer | November 21, 2013 7:20 PM    Report this comment

I truly sympathize with the flight crew and their embarrassing situation. Yes, we're all human and do make mistakes. But reviewing the data on the two airports and listening to the communications with the tower sure make me think they didn't bring their A-game to the job of flying that evening.

There were so many indications available of which they should have been aware that should have caused the old "something's not right here" alarm to be ringing loudly in their heads. They were still outside the final approach fix for the RNAV RWY 19L approach when they landed. They should have been still at least 1600 AGL at that point. The two airports have different beacons, one military and one civil. The approach lighting systems are significantly different, A1 vs. A5. The one at AAO is pilot controlled. Was it even on? And at the very last instant the runway number, 18, should have been the final telling factor. Time for a go-around or touch-and-go? (Maybe easier said than done in a plane that size.)

Once on the ground the crew's apparent lack of preparedness was suggested during their conversation with McConnell tower. The pilot initially thought he was at BEC. He could have ruled that out if he had seen the 18 on the runway. BEC's runway is 19. He asked for a tower frequency. Didn't he have charts, approach plates or an A/FD? They had to ask for the airport identifier, AAO, after they were given the name, Jabara. The pilot just didn't seem terribly sharp during his exchange with the tower. Perhaps, understandably, he was pretty rattled after realizing what he had done.

In the end there was no lasting harm done so I'm not out to crucify the crew. But I sure hope they, and all of us, take home some good lessons from this incident.

Posted by: Frank Arrison | November 22, 2013 2:27 AM    Report this comment

I'm definitely not qualified to cast the first stone. On my long x-country as a student pilot, I nearly landed at Falwell Airport (W24) instead of Lynchburg (LYH). Luckily I was on flight following and used the the magic words "student pilot" on initial contact with the controller so when I report the field in site, he pointed out my mistake before evening setting up for landing. It's particularly embarrassing since LYH has one runway and W24 has 2 intersecting!!!

I'm wondering if fatigue was a factor in this case though? If I'm correct, the aircraft landed pretty early in the morning.

Posted by: EJ Gonzalez | November 22, 2013 6:05 AM    Report this comment

Connecticut was also the scene of a near trap for me, approaching Hartford-Brainard (HFD) one summer day.
Just beyond it, and with a similar runway orientation, is a closed airport named Renstler, (or something close to that). It's a common error made by the unfamiliar so the tower controllers at HFD are spring loaded to warn the dazed and confused once they determine that the wrong airport is the pilot's target.
The trouble is, they are so close together and the runways aligned so nearly alike that it is not until you are about to overshoot HFD that the error becomes obvious to the controller which is just barely in time to make the warning call. Then there is usually a right 360 on short final to get set up again. At least that is what happend to me.
I also recall a FEDEX DC-10 years ago that was on final, or so it thought, runway 9 at Stewart International Airport (SWF) which is over 11,000 feet long and was an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle. That particular flight crew was set up quite nicely on short final for the 3500 foot runway 8 at Orange County Airport, 7nm short of the actual destination, before the local approach controller queried them about their intentions. Another minute and that jumbo jet would have been rolling down the main drag in the village of Montgomery, New York. It's fortunate for all of us that these things are usually figured out while there is still air, and airspeed enough to spare us the ultimate embarrassment.

Posted by: HOWARD KAVE | November 22, 2013 7:16 AM    Report this comment

Never landed at wrong air port but one night after second shift at work took a friends 177rg and a VFR pilot friend to right right seat as I did some approaches at KMKE after 3 or so at KMKE I got Vectors for a 4L VOR to KMWC after descending to minimums I asked him to call passing the FALK water tower. He did and for some reason I looked down at the trim wheel and when I looked up I was lite up with a runway I thought but it was gray and lite up with a car on it. Well he's punching me in the right shoulder and it took a few minutes to realized after transitioning from instruments to visual I had moved over and lined up with 92nd street and wondered, as I recall why, that car was on my runway. U know U never forget your flying mistakes do U?

Posted by: Michael Flanagan | November 22, 2013 7:56 AM    Report this comment

There but for the grace of GPS go I

I know that I have a hard time picking out airports at night (especially in urban areas) until I'm aligned with the runway, so I always dial-in the approach even if I'm flying a visual. I setup the approach way ahead of time when I'm not under any pressure.

Posted by: PHIL RYDER | November 22, 2013 8:00 AM    Report this comment

Please, Dear Lord, please don't let this incident be traced back to sleep apnea.

I haven't done the wrong airport thing yet, but I can sure see how it can happen. Mostly I fly into airports that are well out in the boondocks but when I do fly into the bright lights and big cities, I am always on high alert, especially at night.

Sometimes I start down the "I'd never do a dumb thing like that " process but then I think it has happened to some really good pilots I know and I shouldn't be too smug.

I do confess to landing a couple of times when I wasn't sure where I was but I would casually wandered over to the pay phone or wall chart to see where I was. I guess it's harder to be inconspicuous when you're flying a fully inflated 747.

The other day we had two highly experienced pilots in a brand new magic panel Cirrus fly into our airport thinking they were at another small airport 30 miles away.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 22, 2013 8:47 AM    Report this comment

"The moth to flame trick." - Perfect!

KBDR from the north on a quiet dark night with the winds aloft just so, and wind correction just so, one can mistake KHVN for KBDR. KHVN on the nose and KBDR at 2 O'clock.

No magenta and who cares about the Nav instruments, "Wow, it sure is pretty out there tonight".

A true GTWS moment (Gee That Was Stupid).

Posted by: Dave Jaundrill | November 22, 2013 8:49 AM    Report this comment

What happened to being "bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed". Human error can lead to bad happenings, they are fortunate to be in one piece. These guys are skilled professionals now under the threat of being unemployed and excommunicated by the FAA. What were they thinking?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 22, 2013 9:36 AM    Report this comment

Being tired after a lo-o-ong flight can easily lead to this kind of situation. I very carefully lined up and landed on El Toro Marine base in SoCal thinking I was going into Orange County/John Wayne. About 3:00AM and both towers were closed. I recognized I was in the wrong place and did a touch and go without stopping to say "Where am I?" I quickly found John Wayne and landed before SoCal control could figure out who I was. I never flew when that tired again!

Posted by: Jerald Graham | November 22, 2013 12:38 PM    Report this comment

I remember all too vividly providing FIS service at a German airport when I was much younger and still flying in Europe. Our job wasn't to direct traffic, but to make sure people stayed out of each others trunk, give wind directions and look down the heavily sloped runway for them. Part of life in parts of Europe. Anyhow, here I sit, providing my incredible "ATC" service to our airport (RWY23 in use) with several students flying patterns, when suddenly a motorglider flies over the field, enters a left traffic pattern (our is published as RH) and proceeds to enter downwind for RWY5. When I started to wonder if he was going to turn base, my phone rang. In some freak action of having enough brain to think, I now BOO! our students to leave the pattern UFN, all gladly comply. When I pick up the phone, the other end of the line is cool, calm and collected, but very very crisp: "Do you have a plane on downwind you ain't talking to?" Answer: "Yes, Bud, how would you know?" Response: "Well, I happen to be talking to one, but can't see him!, Since we're just 20 miles apart, I figgered....."

I told the other person that my airspace was clear and that we agreed to play a little stunt on the pilot. He would clear him to land and instruct him to back-taxi, take a left turn and park right in front of the cafeteria that is attached to our airport, overlooking the field. We hung up the phone.

The Motorglider landed (slightly long, for going downhill with a tailwind), back taxi is done and the thing turns to park as instructed. Two older than dust guys (BMI 40+ and necksize 17+ too) get out and waddle towards the cafeteria to enjoy some coffee. 20 minutes later I hear them weaving and heaving up the stairs to come and pay their respects (landing fees).

One of them looks at me and says, "Jeez, young man, I remember your airport to be quite different. That runway is short, narrow and has settled quite a bit over the years! But, oh, the coffee was good. How much do we owe you?" I charged 2 landing fees and and administration charge. What was supposed to cost $9.00 ended up being about $30. No complaints, not even a question as to why it was sooo expensive...

I decided then and there that I would explain the high pricing with using two different runways at the same time, occupying two different FIS's at the same time, and loss of income for coffee at the airport where they thought to be. The guy wasn't happy, but had pure shock in his face. Dumbstruck. Embarrassed. 50 years of flying, and something stupid like that had never happened to him. We talked about comparing approach plates with actual layout, runway numbers with approach plates, and please, look at the cafeteria menu when you order your cake and coffee.... Name doesn't sound like where you're supposed to be? There's a sign.

We got them squared away, safely. No big deal. A year later I flew to an airport close to a military base. On 3 mile final I could for the life of me not figure out why in the world C130's would be parked there. Never landed, they would have likely shot me, but I don't throw rocks when I am sitting in a glass house. Hell did I get barked at where I was supposed to go. Just because we haven't made the mistake ourselves doesn't mean nobody else should be allowed to at least try... :o)

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 22, 2013 1:08 PM    Report this comment

Hey Howard, a pilot did mistakenly set down at that airstrip near Pratt&Whitney instead of HFD-Brainard.
A CFI told me the story. They wouldn't let him takeoff again as they were afraid of the liability issue. So they put the plane on a flatbed truck and removed the wings. Oh the ignominy.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | November 22, 2013 8:53 PM    Report this comment

Crew conversation after "Incident"; Think we could do this with 5,000 ft of pavement next time?
NOTE: Guess "if I can fly an airplane, I can also walk on water and perform other daring feats"!

Posted by: Rod Beck | November 23, 2013 6:26 PM    Report this comment

Often it's a combination of events that lead to an aircraft landing at the wrong airport. I had an IFR aircraft come on my frequency with IFP (Bullhead City, AZ) as the destination. Unbeknownst to me, he had filed for a different destination and receive a revised clearance to Bullhead City on a previous frequency. The pilot requested a visual approach. The controller who normally works IFP arrivals had a stuck mike so I issued the aircraft a visual approach to Bullhead City Airport, terminated radar (I can't see or speak to them below 5,500) and gave him the IFP tower frequency. Turns out, he landed at Sun Valley, a small strip 7 miles south of IFP. In 23 years, I had never seen an IFR operation into Sun Valley (A20). The chart for Sun Valley says Bullhead City; Sun Valley. After that incident, if a pilot asks me for a clearance to a new destination, I make sure to spell out the identifier.

Posted by: Jennifer Carr | November 23, 2013 11:26 PM    Report this comment

When I was in the Navy and station on San Clemente Island we had a guy and his 3 friends land at our airfield. Tower was shut down, no runway lights, and nothing beyond us but miles and miles of Pacific Ocean. Security met them when they stopped and it turned out he was trying to go to Santa Catalina about 32 miles to the north. We kept all four of them and their Cessna overnight then let them leave in the morning.
On one of my student night flights I landed at the right airport but wrong runway. I was about 90 degrees off and didn't notice until we landed and everything seemed out of place. My instructor said he thought it would be a good lesson in paying attention to things like compass and runway alignment and knowing where I was. I definitely found out how easy it is to get turned around at night.

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | December 13, 2013 7:52 PM    Report this comment

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