Now and again, we hear of an aircraft mistakenly landing at the wrong airport. With all the navigational aids available to pilots today, this is something of a rare occurrence. When it does happen, there’s usually no harm done, save for a bit of a delay for the poor passengers on board. However, when it’s something as large as a Dreamlifter and it’s just landed at a General Aviation airport, the consequences are somewhat more severe.
An unexpected visitor
For avgeeks the world over, spotting manufacturer’s heavy transport planes is a life goal. Boeing’s Dreamlifters and Airbus’ Belugas are guaranteed to attract attention everywhere they go, bringing hopeful fans out to snap a shot of the giant beasts. But for residents near a small Kansas airport in 2013, a Dreamlifter got a bit too close for comfort.
The huge aircraft as flying from New York JFK to McConnell Air Force Base, around four miles southeast of Wichita, Kansas in November 2013. Piloted by Atlas Air, the Dreamlifter took off at 13:16 local time for the short journey to McConnell. However, the aircraft didn’t land at McConnel, rather it touched down around eight nautical miles away at Colonel James Jabara Airport.
Jabara Airport is a small public airfield, most frequently used by general aviation. It is certainly not accustomed to welcoming in something as large as a Dreamlifter, so its touchdown was something of a shock.
“We just landed at the other airport”
According to APOA, ATC communications at the time of the mistake had confirmed that the Dreamlifter was on an RNAV (GPS) approach to runway 19L at McConnell. After being cleared to land, the tower the crew to “check wheels down” and advised them to expect a turnoff at Taxiway Delta. The response from the pilots was,
“Giant 14…4241 we might, we’ll have to get back to you momentarily, we’re not on your approach.”
To that, the controller responded,
“Giant 4241 Heavy, McConnell is nine miles south of you.”
The bemused pilots, realizing their mistake, responded to the controller,
“Uh, we just landed at the other airport.”
For a while, the pilots thought they were at BEC – a nearby airport called Wichita Beech Field. It took several minutes of checks and a conversation with someone on the ground before they realized the extent of their mistake.
Jabara’s runway is just over 6,000 feet long, around half the length of McConnell’s 19L, which comes in at over 12,000 feet. Its concrete construction is not designed to take the weight of an aircraft as large as a 747, therefore the facility had to close for several hours in order to inspect for damage.
Of course, that was only the first part of the problem. The optimal runway length for a 747 to take off is 9,199 feet, according to PrivateFly. Thankfully, after many technical calculations were made, the Dreamlifter managed to take off and reposition to McConnell without incident.
Why did this happen?
Following the incident, Atlas Air undertook an internal investigation into the cause of the error. AIN reported on the findings of the investigation, which identified some important factors explaining why the mistake happened.
According to a crew training video seen by AIN, Atlas Air said that some intermittent issues with the first officer’s flight display during an earlier portion of the flight made the pilots unsure of the reliability of the aircraft’s automation system. When programming in a GPS approach to runway 19L at McConnell, the pilot believed they were coming in too high.
The pilot noted that, on previous flights, the VFR approach had brought his aircraft in at a higher altitude than expected. Believing that the equipment was making an error, he disconnected the autopilot and decided to make an instrument approach.
On the pilots’ side, the main error was that the pair had not undertaken a briefing about other airports in the area, or regarding the 19L approach lighting system which would have helped them check they were landing in the right place. According to the pilots, at the time of the initial approach, the pilot in charge saw a brightly lit runway to the left, which he thought matched the one he was aiming for.
However, it’s not only the pilots who were found to be at fault. Upon noticing the runway to his left, the pilot disengaged the automation systems and began a manual approach to the airport. At this stage, Air Traffic Control should have noticed the deviation and alerted the pilots to the error.
In a bid to prevent the same situation from happening again, Atlas Air has implemented a rule that pilots must stay on an instrument approach, even in good visibility, until they have passed the final approach fix.