Though I've never landed at the wrong airport, I know a few pilots who have or who have come pretty close. But these were in the days before GPS.
I used to think I had a special advantage because I've almost always been assigned to organizations that required their pilots to operate IFR, "to the maximum extent possible." But in the first two stories we see the Air Force was in no way immune to this kind of thing. In the third, we see a squadron mate of mine from the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews did once land at the wrong airport, but he was in a very unusual circumstance. (See Too Many Secrets, below.) The stories that follow are ones I've collected since then that I think have a lesson to teach.
The truth is that it is easy to make this mistake when you are flying a very fast airplane with very small windows and are being pressured to do things very quickly. Looking at a few examples, however, can show you how easy it is to get this wrong. Moreover, thinking about it ahead of time can give you the techniques needed to avoid the same mistakes.
These stories are given chronologically and the lessons learned immediately following, shown in green.
There are a few references shown at the very bottom.
A few months before I showed up for duty at my Boeing 747 squadron they had a trip that required they overfly the runway at Patuxent Naval Air Station prior to landing. This was a visual maneuver and the cockpit was packed with an instructor pilot in the right seat, a fully qualified pilot in the left seat, and a brand new (and still not fully qualified) pilot in the jump seat.
The instructor called "visual" fifteen miles out and set up for the approach to Runway 14 at Patuxent. That wasn't the longest available runway, but it was plenty long, just over 9,700 feet. This wasn't the first time for either of the qualified pilots at Patuxent and once the right seat pilot called visual the rest of the crew got ready for the fly over and eventual landing. Everything seemed to go well until they overflew St Mary's County Regional (2WG) airport's 4,150' runway. The pilot flying was not concerned and was getting ready to turn downwind. The pilot in the jump seat felt something was wrong but kept silent until he spotted the Patuxent River NAS, still ten miles east. "Runway straight ahead!"
Illustration: A View of St Mary's County Regional (2WG), Maryland, not Patuxent River NAS (KNHK), from GoogleEarth
Nobody at the small regional airport seemed to notice a Boeing 747 flying over their runway at 1,500 feet and the passengers waiting at Pax River were none the wiser. The pilots kept the incident to themselves until, years later, the jump seat pilot told the story. Right about then, our approach plates started to add geographic features . . .
Illustration: The Precision Approach Radar depiction for Patuxent River Naval Air Station
When I got qualified I started carrying terrain charts for every airport we went and that definitely helped. But bringing this lesson forward to today, it definitely helps to visualize the airport in the context of the surrounding water. You might even add that to your approach briefing if you will be flying a visual or circling approach. For example, "We are looking for Pax River which sits on a peninsula surrounded by Patuxent River to the northwest and the Chesapeake to the east."
When flying a visual approach make an effort to find sources of geographic clues. These can be terrain charts, a sectional, or even a color coded approach plate. But however you find the information, include it in your briefing. In our previous example we had the advantage of water. But we can brief geography even at land locked airports. Examples:
I have a friend who was flying the SR-71 at this time and he never heard of this incident. When guys at the top of the pilot food chain screw up, the food chain itself closes in to hide the error. But that was in the days before cell phones and millions of amateur photographers ready to capture these mistakes for all to see.
Photo: SR-71 landing at Offutt Air Force Base, April 3, 1990 (USAF Photo).
I was flying a Boeing 747 for the Offutt Air Force Base air show in 1989 (as I recall) and after our demonstration we left the pattern to get some training done elsewhere. While we were gone we heard and SR-71 for a high speed pass over Millard Airport, about 10 nm to the west of Offutt. Both airports have a Runway 12/30 but that's where the similarities end. Millard has a 3,801' runway, Offutt's is 11,703' long. Millard is a small airport with a few buildings nearby. Offutt, at this time, was home to the Strategic Air Command.
How could this happen? Just imagine looking out the very small windows of the SR-71 while looking for that small piece of asphalt? Now how big are your windows? It's a good thing you have GPS and all those other electronics to help your situational awareness. But all those electronic gizmos do you no good at all if you aren't using them.
We pilots have a tendency to think our skills do nothing but grow, accumulating from one airplane to the next and year after year. But this ignores the fact that (a) each airplane imposes different restrictions to the tasks, and (b) we lose skills without practice. Looking outside the very large windscreen of a Cessna 152 while traveling at 70 knots makes the task of airport identification quite easy after a few hours of instruction. Now let's decrease that window to the size found on a typical business jet and jack up the speed to 250 knots. It isn't so easy now, is it?
So it is more difficult, we get that. What's the lesson? Simply put, don't be so quick to accept a visual at an airport you've never seen before. Even if you have a history with the airport, realize the odds are stacked against you and perhaps using technology to even the odds is a good idea.
Nobody wants to talk about a wrong airport landing and these things tend to get hushed up rather quickly. You aren't going to find much about this incident because the cargo was classified and it happened in a very secluded area. I know the pilot who made the landing. Immediately following the incident he was fired. But Atlas Air investigated and determined he was not at fault, so he was rehired. That speaks volumes about Atlas Air.
Photo: View of TUS VOR radial and MZJ and AVW Airports, from GoogleEarth
Pinal Airpark (MZJ) sits about 30 miles north of Tucson, Arizona and is known as one of the world's largest aircraft bone yards. It has been home to hundreds of Boeing and Airbus aircraft since the 1990's. Another thing it used to be home to is a lot of secret government cloak and dagger activities that required secret stuff transportation late at night. And that is where Atlas Air comes in.
I am told that in the early 1990's this involved waiting until complete darkness, flying a Boeing 747 at about 5,000' and along the 320° radial off the TUS VOR for about 15 miles until you fly over what are known as the "Picture Rocks" which rise to about 3,300' MSL. At that point you descend to 3,000' and look for the Pinal Airpark about 12 miles ahead. You will lose the VOR signal so this is pretty much done with dead reckoning. Since this is always done at night, your next step is to activate what was, back then, a secret set of pilot controlled runway lights.
My friend had flown this maneuver many times so what was once strange and scary became familiar and routine: 5,000' on the radial, 15 DME descend to 3,000', five clicks on the secret frequency, there's the runway, land. Easy.
He had no idea there was another airport, just five miles north of the mountains, called the Avra Valley Airport (AVW). More importantly the Avra Valley Airport had no idea the airport to their north had installed pilot controlled lighting because that airport was (at the time) a secret. So Avra Valley installed their own set of pilot controlled lighting and I am sure you have figured out by now, they chose the same frequency.
So the next time my pilot did the pass the rocks, descend, five clicks routine he was surprised to see the airport appear sooner than he was used to. No matter, he steepened his glide path and landed. The runway he thought he landed on was 6,849' long by 150' wide. The runway he did land on was 6,901' long by 100' wide. The next day he was fired. Atlas didn't want any other pilots making the same mistake and discovered what really happened. They unfired the pilot. Happy ending and we all learned something . . .
Things are rarely as easy at night as they are during the day. When I was in Air Force pilot training we had two crashes at night blamed on visual illusions and that resulted in a new regulation that said that if some kind of electronic or visual vertical guidance is available, it must be used.
That is pretty sound advice. With all things equal and you have a choice of runways, pick one with an ILS, VASI, or PAPI. These days you can also rely on a good RNAV with LPV. Some aircraft will allow you to draw an electronic guidance from the aircraft to any landing surface. But you have to be proficient with the gizmos to use them effectively.
As my friend at Atlas Air found out, a familiar setting can become unfamiliar without warning. In this case the intended airport didn't change, the surrounding environment did. Here again, having an electronic back up can save the day.
This was a fairly high tech Boeing 737 for the time but it did not apparently automatically listen to the localizer signal to interpret the Morse Code, which the pilots also failed to do. They tuned in the proper frequency (110.3 IEKI) for the Localizer Runway 31 into Corpus Christi but did not check the identifier by listening for the Morse code. They didn't know the controller had recently selected the opposite runway's localizer (110.3 ICRP) and that the localizer to Runway 31 was inactive. Along their final approach path, the pilots spotted Cabaniss Field Naval Outlying Field (KNGW), which also has a Runway 31. They assumed it was the correct Runway 31 and landed. They were wrong.
Some aircraft will automatically listen to the Morse Code for you. But you still have to look for the ident and you cannot assume typing the identifier guarantees only the correct ILS will be tuned. More about this under the lessons learned.
Photo: Planview of KCRP Localizer Runway 31 Approach, from JeppView KCRP 11-2, 20 May 16
[AIM, §1-1-19, ¶b.1.] The localizer transmitter operates on one of 40 ILS channels within the frequency range of 108.10 to 111.95 MHz. Signals provide the pilot with course guidance to the runway centerline.
Just because the needles react as you expect them to does not mean they are telling the truth. Your very first instrument instructor emphasized TIM (Tune, Identify, Monitor) and the still holds true today.
There are only 40 localizer frequencies and the chances that another nearby airport is using the same frequency is higher than you might think. You need to identify the Morse Code. Some aircraft will do this for you but you need to understand how reliably it does this and what its limitations are. Gulfstream and FlightSafety once taught that entering the ILS identifier instead of the frequency guarantees only the selected ILS would be tuned and this was the company line for over ten years. (I think there are still proponents of this view.) I was able to demonstrate that this does nothing other than dial in the desired frequency and you could very well end up with the wrong ILS:
Photo: Entering the "IULJ" ILS ident for KBED in the G450 FMS PROG Page
FlightSafety taught for ten years that this is just as good as monitoring and guaranteed the correct ILS.
Photo: Seeing "IGFN" on the PFD after entering "IULJ" in the MCDU
So the only thing you can be sure of is that 111.15 is tuned.
Photo: Seeing "IULJ" on the bottom of the PFD after coming into range of KBED
So now can we be sure?
Photo: Seeing "IULJ" on the top of the PFD once on raw data.
Honeywell says the machine has listened to the Morse Code for us.
In many of these wrong landing examples the mistake could have been caught had the pilots continued to use their instruments after saying the word "visual." You should also be cross checking these needles to ensure you are flying a stable approach, after all.
When you are going to a remote city and the destination is an airport that bears the name of the city, you might be inclined to think that airport is the largest in within sight of the city. This is often untrue.
Photo: Rapid City airports, from GoogleEarth
Can you guess which airport is civilian and which is military? Hint: the Air Force has a very large presence here.
[The Free Lance Star, June 21, 2004, Airliner arrives on time, but at wrong airport]
In many cities there are several airports jammed into the same general area. Since they probably were built to consider the same prevailing wind conditions, they often have runways with the same general direction. Also beware of cities where an older military field that has since closed still provides the most tempting landing surface. Tempting, but wrong.
Wichita is what we in the Air Force would call a "target rich environment." When you are behind enemy lines in charge of shooting something, anything, that is a good thing. When you are tooling around at night looking for the correct airport? Not so much.
Photo: Atlas Dreamlifter departs Jabra, (Daily Mail Photo).
On November 20, 2013, a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter (N780BA) operated by Atlas Air inadvertently landed at Colonel James Jabara Airport, a small general aviation airport in Wichita, Kansas. Its intended destination was McConnell Air Force Base, 9 miles past Jabara Airport on the same heading.
Illustration: The Wichita Area, from JeppView.
Photo: McConnell AFB RNAV(GPS) Runway 19L approach plate, from JeppView, KIAB, page 32-3, 23 Sep 16
There are two unusual statements from Atlas about this incident. First, the pilot thought the RNAV/GPS was bringing him in too high but decided he was abeam the intended airport before crossing the final approach fix. Second, the company's solution to require staying on instruments until the final approach fix still leaves lots of room for this kind of mistake. If you want to prevent falling into the same trap that got these two pilots, I recommend the following:
I've heard from more than one airline pilot that when they get a chance to fly a visual approach, they pounce on it. The chance to fly their aircraft without reference to approach needles and other instruments, "It really helps you to keep sharp!"
This crew appears to have been professional in most regards but fell into a trap of being too eager to go from instruments to visual, and too willing to bend their stable approach rules rather than go around. At 500 feet above the wrong runway the aircraft was doing 1,200 fpm and the pilots should have gone around. Had they done so, they would have noticed the bombers parked on the ramp and we wouldn't be using them as an example here.
Illustration: Delta Flight 2845 Flight Path, NTSB Drawing.
If you are in the habit of doing everything the right way and then, for some inexplicable reason, the approach doesn't work out the way you expected, chances are you've made a dumb mistake somewhere along the line. While I am not a fan of going to a holding pattern to sort things out, sometimes you have to do just that.
I have to admit that I am dumbfounded about how this keeps happening. Back in the pre-GPS days we had some excuses. Weak excuses, but excuses nonetheless. But if you have a GPS you have a way of backing up the visual that is fool proof. Except fools can be fooled.
Photo: Flight track of American Airlines Flight 862, Page Field (FMY) versus Fort Myers (RSW), August 30, 2018
Click photo for a larger image
The weather was good and the crew of this Airbus A320 was cleared for a visual approach to Runway 06 at KRSW. Instead, they lined up on Runway 05 at nearby Page Field, a general aviation airport. They got down to 875 feet before ATC noticed and directed them to break off the approach. According to a passenger: “Once we got close, he [the pilot] said we were going to be landing soon but then we started to drop really fast and I felt we were on a carnival ride. My stomach was turning. I was feeling really sick”.
Aeronautical Information Manual
Daily Mail Reporter, Dreamlifter pilot who landed at wrong airport 'couldn't read his handwriting' and got confused between east and west,, 22 November 2013
Lowy, Joan, Delta Airlines flight lands at Ellsworth Air Force Base by mistake, Air Force Times, July 8, 2016
Mark, Robert P., Atlas Identifies Causes of 747's Landing at Wrong Airport, AINonline, January 6, 2014
NTSB Aviation Incident Final Report, Airbus A320 211, Runway Incursion, N333NW, 07/07/2016, DCA16IA200
NTSB Accident Docket FTW97IA187, Boeing 737-524, registration: N16618, CONTINENTAL AIRLINES, INC., May 11, 1997 in CORPUS CHRISTI, TX, 05/04/1998
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