How A DC-10 Flight To Frankfurt Landed In Brussels Without Realizing

Northwest Airlines was a major force in United States aviation for many decades until its merger with Delta Air Lines in 2008. There were undoubtedly several interesting events involving the carrier during its life. Today, we will look at when one of its McDonnell Douglas DC-10s heading for Frankfurt, Germany, actually ended up in Brussels, Belgium in 1995.

Northwest Airlines DC-10
The DC-10 landed in the wrong European city. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons

Transatlantic trip

According to FlightGlobal, the DC-10-40 departed Detroit, Michigan, with 241 passengers. However, those traveling onboard would have been frustrated when they discovered that they were landing 300 km (160 NM) away from their destination.

The arrival of Flight 52 at Brussels Airport on September 5th, 1995, was truly an error. The pilots only realized the mistake when they lined the trijet up for the approach at the capital of Belgium. Nonetheless, the crew decided that it was best to land.

Even though the pilots found out so late, passengers and flight attendants suspected that something was off. They could see that there was a detour happening from the live map display in the cabin of the aircraft.

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DC-10 Northwest
Northwest was a fan of the DC-10. Photo: Kambui via Wikimedia Commons

Subsequent investigation

Following the event, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) got involved and launched a full inquiry into what happened with this service. According to The Washington Post, an aviation industry source close to the investigation shared the following:

“The only people on that plane who didn’t know where they were were the three guys up front.”

Subsequently, Northwest Airlines suspended the pilots. Initial reports from Brussels air traffic control (ATC) attributed the original error to Shannon ATC. They suggested that an incorrect code had been entered into the plane’s ATC flight-plan data. This, in turn, re-designated the jet’s destination as Brussels.

However, the Irish Aviation Authority dismisses these allegations. Officials said that the crew had acknowledged the destination as Frankfurt. Thus, the right data was taken to the London Air Traffic Control Centre, which was the last such group before the final destination in the Belgian city. Brussels ATC stated that when the DC-10 entered the Brussels control region, its destination had been re-designated.

The jet’s route to Frankfurt would usually have taken it over Belgium at a cruising altitude of 37,000 ft (11,300 m). Nonetheless, the upper-airspace (above 24,500 ft) over Belgium was handled by the Netherlands’ Maastricht ATCC in the Netherlands.

A senior Brussels ATC staff member shared that the plane was given the go-ahead to descend to 24,000 ft and contact Brussels as it left the London control region. The crew members began to descend and called Brussels but addressed the controller as “Frankfurt” and spoke of their intention to land.

Delta Northwest Getty
Northwest was a household name from 1926 until its merger this century. Photo: Getty Images

Cleared for landing

Altogether, Northwest, said that during their transmissions, Brussels did not question the mention of Frankfurt. On approach, they instead instructed the crew on directions to land at the airport. Finally, the DC-10 was cleared for an instrument-landing system (ILS) approach to Brussels’ runway 25L. This is the same runway orientation as at Frankfurt. However, it has different ILS frequencies.

The pilots eventually realized that it was the wrong airport. However, for safety reasons, they decided the best course of action was to go ahead with the landing. Despite the errors that ATC may have made, Northwest felt that the aircraft’s crew must share responsibility for the mistake.

What are your thoughts about this Northwest Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-10 heeding for Frankfurt ending up at Brussels Airport? Have you experienced anything similar? Let us know what you think of the incident in the comment section.