WRONG LANDINGS BY US AIR CARRIERS
U.S. commercial air carriers have landed or started to land at the wrong airports at least 150 times since the early 1990s, according to a search by The Associated Press of government safety databases and media reports. And the problem isn’t limited to airlines — military pilots have made similar blunders.
Here’s a sample of wrong airport landings :
• January: A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 with 124 passengers aboard lands at a small public airport in Hollister, Mo. The runway is half the length of the one that the flight had been cleared to land on at a larger airport in nearby Branson. Braking hard, pilots are able to stop the plane just short of a ravine. Pilots tell investigators they confused the smaller airport’s bright runway lights for the Branson airport.
• November 2013: A Boeing 747 freighter operated by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings lands at a small air field with a short runway near Wichita, Kan., instead of McConnell Air Force Base 9 miles away. There are three airports in the area with runways similarly aligned.
• August 2012: United Express Flight 4049 operated by Silver Airways en route from Morgantown, W.Va., to Clarksburg, W.Va., lands at a small airport in Fairmont, W.Va., about 10 miles from the flight’s intended destination. Eleven passengers and three crew members are on board.
• July 2012: A military C-17 Globemaster III en route from Rome, Italy, to Tampa, Fla., with the head of the U.S. Central Command on board lands at the small Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa instead of its intended destination, nearby MacDill Air Force Base. Both airports have runways with the number 22 on them to indicate the compass heading, but Knight Airport’s runways are less than a third the length of MacDill’s runway.
• September 2011: A Continental Airlines flight from Houston to Lake Charles, La., lands at a Southland Executive Airport in Sulphur, La., a small air field 8 miles away that’s popular with crop dusters and fish spotters. It was the third time a Continental flight from Houston to Lake Charles has mistakenly landed at Southland.
• October 2004: The captain of a Boeing 757 reports landing at a wrong airport about 6 miles from the airliner’s intended destination. Faced with testy passengers, the captain compounds the error by taking off again without waiting to be released. After the plane lands at the original destination, the captain and first officer are relieved of duty. The airports and the airline aren’t identified.
• June 2004: A Northwest Airlines Flight 1152 from Minneapolis is given clearance to land at Rapid City Regional Airport in South Dakota but mistakenly lands at Ellsworth Air Force Base nearby. The plane, with 117 passengers and five crew members, remains at Ellsworth for more than three hours during the daylight incident
• January 2004: A US Airways commuter flight operated by Shuttle America lands at Mid-State Regional Airport near Philipsburg, Pa., instead of University Park Airport outside State College, Pa. The airports are about 20 miles apart.
• January 2003: A charter flight carrying the Notre Dame University basketball team returning to Indiana from a game in Providence, R.I., lands at Elkhart Municipal Airport instead of South Bend Regional Airport. The two airports are about 12 miles apart. Towers at both airports were closed at the time.
• May 1997: A Continental Airlines Boeing 737 carrying 54 passengers from Houston to Corpus Christi, Texas, mistakenly lands at a nearly abandoned World War II-era air field.
• March 1997: A charter flight carrying the University of Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team home from a losing game in New York lands at the wrong Arkansas airport. The 137 players, cheerleaders, boosters, members of the school band and alumni are loaded onto buses for the final 12 miles from Springdale to Fayetteville.
• September 1995: A Northwest Airlines flight with 241 passengers en route from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany, misses its destination by more than 200 miles, landing instead in Brussels, Belgium. The captain says he was misdirected by European air traffic controllers who incorrectly entered the flight plan into their computers.
SAN JOSE (AP) — At a time when a cellphone can guide you to your driveway, commercial pilots attempt to land at the wrong airport more often than most passengers realize or government officials admit, according to an Associated Press search of government safety data and news reports since the early 1990s.
On at least 150 flights, including a Southwest Airlines jet last month in Missouri and a jumbo cargo plane last fall in Kansas, U.S. commercial passenger and cargo planes have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time.
A particular trouble spot is San Jose. The list of landing mistakes includes six reports of pilots preparing to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport, when they meant to go to Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 10 miles to the southeast. The airports are south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley.
“This event occurs several times every winter in bad weather when we work on Runway 12,” a San Jose airport tower controller said in a November 2012 report describing how an airliner headed for Moffett after being cleared to land at San Jose. The plane was waved off in time.
In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to fly based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn’t match what they were seeing out their windows — a runway straight ahead.
“You’ve got these runway lights, and you are looking at them, and they’re saying: ‘Come to me, come to me. I will let you land.’ They’re like the sirens of the ocean,” said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.
Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.
The tally doesn’t include every event. Many aren’t disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren’t publicly available. FAA officials turned down a request by The Associated Press for access to those records, saying some may include information on possible violations of safety regulations by pilots and might be used in an enforcement action.
NASA, on the other hand, scrubs its reports of identifying information to protect confidentiality, including names of pilots, controllers and airlines. While the database is operated by the space agency, it is paid for by the FAA and its budget has been frozen since 1997, said database director Linda Connell. As a result, fewer incident reports are being entered even though the volume of reports has soared, she said.
The accounts that are available paint a picture of repeated close calls, especially in parts of the country where airports are situated close together with runways similarly angled, including Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and several airports in South Florida.
“Nashville and Smyrna is interesting,” said Kevin Hiatt, a former Delta Air Lines chief pilot. As a plane approaches from the southeast, “there’s three airports right in a row that are pointed almost exactly the same.”
Continental Airlines regional carriers flying from Houston to Lake Charles Regional Airport on the Louisiana Gulf Coast have at least three times mistakenly landed at the smaller, nearby Southland Executive field. Both airports have runways painted with the numbers 15 and 33 to reflect their compass headings. Runways are angled based on prevailing winds.
The recent wrong airport landings by a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 in Missouri and an Atlas Air Boeing 747 freighter in Kansas have heightened safety concerns. The Southwest pilots stopped just short of a ravine at the end of the short runway in Hollister, Mo., when they meant to land on a runway twice as long at nearby Branson. Of the 35 documented wrong landings, at least 23 occurred at airports with shorter runways.
FAA officials emphasized that cases of wrong airport landings are rare. There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP’s tally. None has resulted in death or injury.
“The FAA reviews reported wrong-airport incidents to determine whether steps such as airfield lighting adjustments may reduce pilot confusion,” the agency said in a statement. However, officials didn’t reply when the AP requested examples of steps taken in response to specific incidents. FAA officials also said they would share their data on landings and almost landings with the AP, but produced only one number for use on the record, which appears to be an undercount of landings over the last decade.
Concerned about the potential for wrong airport landings, some airlines include warnings on flight plans provided to pilots about pairs of airports that are easily confused, said Hiatt, president of the Flight Safety Association in Alexandria, Va.
John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety expert, says the FAA and the NTSB should be concerned. Air crashes are nearly always the result of a string of safety lapses rather than a single mistake, he noted. Attempts to land at wrong airports represent “another step up the ladder toward a riskier operation,” he said.
Runway condition is also a worry when a plane makes a mistaken approach. When an air traffic controller clears a plane to land on a specific runway, “you know you pretty much have a clear shot at a couple of miles of smooth concrete,” said Rory Kay, a training captain at a major airline. “If you choose to land somewhere else, then all bets are off. There could be a bloody big hole in the middle of the runway. There could be a barrier across it. There could be vehicles working on it.”
Another concern is that a plane attempting to land at the wrong airport could collide with a plane taking off from that airport. Several pilots who reported aborting wrong airport landings said they crossed the airport’s “centerline” — the path planes would follow during takeoff. A few reported receiving warnings of other planes nearby.
In some reports, pilots said they were saved from making a wrong airport landing by an alert controller. That was the case for an MD-80 captain who nearly landed his mid-sized airliner at Page Field, a small airport in Fort Myers, Fla., used mainly by private pilots, instead of the much larger Southwest Florida International Airport nearby. A controller caught the mistake in time and suggested the captain explain the detour by telling passengers the flight was “touring downtown” Fort Myers.
“I was pretty shaken as to what could have happened and was very glad to have an understanding, helpful (controller),” the captain said. “They (controllers) said there would be no problem with (the FAA) and that this was a common occurrence.”