LANDING AT WRONG AIRPORT
Most of the aviation world has seen/heard the story of the Boeing 747 Dreamlifter that landed at the wrong Wichita-area airport a bit ago. Is it really that unusual? Probably unusual yes for 747’s, but one has to wonder if it doesn’t happen occasionally to smaller GA aircraft. I recall several years ago and incident here in Minneapolis that created a similar stir. Not so much with the general public, but with the local aviation community.
The incident occurred when a GA aircraft was inbound from the southwestern U.S. to MIC (Minneapolis Crystal) a city reliever airport. As I recall, the pilot was on a vfr flight plan and he had told Flight Service that he had the airport in sight, cancelled the flight plan and proceeded to contact the Crystal tower. MIC has parallel runways 14-32 with a cross runway of 06-24. MSP (Minneapolis International) a few miles to the southeast has parallel runways 12-30 and a cross runway of 04-22. And of course, MSP was all lit up with evening rush hour air traffic. So here’s where the fun began. The pilot was talking to the reliever airport tower, but was on a visual course to the International. The reliever tower kept saying that they did not have visual contact with his aircraft, so please turn on landing lights. We can easily assume that the MSP Int’l folks were seeing a small plane approaching its airport on radar and no radio contact with the plane. Apparently many airliners had to be vectored from approaches into holding patterns and takeoffs were held. The GA plane did land at International and was likely met very quickly by authorities. This was before 9-11 so you could imagine the problems to be faced today.
These errant landings probably don’t often happen at major international airports, but I’ll bet they occur at smaller non-towered ones. Just nobody but the pilot knows it. You can expect most airports in a local area to have similar wind patterns and thus similar runway directions. My best guess is that when a pilot has that nearby look-alike “airport in sight” and begins a visual approach, the mental focus becomes the airport in sight and not the instruments that are saying wrong airport. Sometimes it can be confusing and especially at night. The word “verify” comes to mind.
What surprises me is that the Wichita reliever airport runway was able to handle the weight of that Dreamlifter that can be in the 800k lbs range. Years ago I had an opportunity to fly a 747-400 full motion simulator at one of the airline sim centers and talked the instructor pilot into letting me attempt a landing at a local reliever airport. Very fun and made it in although my instructor pilot commented that in real life the runway may not be able to handle the load. That particular airport is one of our larger reliever airports has a runway single wheel load limit of 30k lbs, while MSP Int’l handles 100k lbs per single wheel. The Dreamlifter looks to have 18 wheels or over 40k lbs per wheel. The Wichita look-alike Colonel James Jabara airport has a single wheel load limit of 40k lbs. I guess with some fuel burned off during flight and likely a margin for error on the runway limit, they managed to be spared another major problem.
My learning thoughts on these episodes still turn back to always check your instruments and “verify”, especially in an unfamiliar location…