Sorry, Wrong Airport…. Again!



January 14th, 2013

I’M OBLIGED TO SAY SOMETHING, anything, about the incident on January 12th in which a Southwest Airlines 737 landed at the wrong airport.

The plane was destined for Branson, Missouri, and instead ended up at a small general aviation field nearby, touching down on a runway less than four thousand feet long.

Twice in two months this has happened. Back in November, a 747 freighter operated by Atlas Air found itself at the wrong airport in Kansas. Much of what I said then applies this time as well, so allow me to repeat myself, beginning with the disclaimer that these things are often more complicated than they seem on the surface, and we probably shouldn’t speculate too broadly until more is known.

The question I keep getting is “How could such a thing happen” — with a incredulous tweaking of the word “how.” I can’t be sure if this is asked rhetorically, or if people expect a neat and concise answer (aside from the obvious, which is that the crew made a terrible mistake).
Because, unfortunately, there isn’t a neat and concise answer.

In addition to whatever human mistakes are to blame, weather and air traffic control, among other factors, can lend a hand in getting from point A to point B — or, in this case, point C. Take, for example, the case 19 years ago of a Northwest Airlines DC-10 that touched down in Brussels instead of Frankfurt. It turned out that air traffic controllers had been given the wrong information, and began issuing a long and complicated series of vectors and course changes to the crew, sending it toward Brussels instead of Frankfurt. Airspace in Europe is complex and often very congested, and roundabout routings aren’t uncommon. Thus it wasn’t necessarily obvious to the crew that they were being led astray. Due to fuel constraints, by the time they realized what was happening, they opted to continue on to Brussels rather than request a re-clearance to Frankfurt. In other words, at a certain point it was * safer * to land at the wrong airport than the right one.

What happened in Missouri and Kansas may have been a lot different, and it’s very possible that a failure of basic flying skills was the primary culprit. But the moral is that there’s typically more to these situations than the media coverage implies.

The Southwest pilots were flying a so-called visual approach into Branson. Most of the time, jetliners land using what we call an ILS (instrument landing system) in which ATC guides us onto a pair of crosshair signals — one vertical, the other horizontal — that we track to the runway, either manually or by coupling the ILS to the plane’s autoflight system. There are also what we call “non-precision” instrument patterns, which guide aircraft toward the general vicinity of the runway, if not to the very threshold as with an ILS. Visual approaches are used when ceiling and visibility are above certain parameters — in other words, when the weather is good. Here, as the name of the procedure implies, the crew identifies the airport by sight, and continues toward the runway through whichever course and pattern is most practical. Sometimes a visual approach is backed up with an ILS, but not always, and in some cases there’s substantial low-altitude maneuvering. In other words it’s a very hands-on procedure.

That doesn’t make what happened in Missouri acceptable, or the kind of thing we should expect. Airline pilots perform thousands of successful visual approaches every day in this country without incident. But neither are such errors unprecedented, and certain combinations of circumstances make them more likely: a nighttime visual approach with low-altitude maneuvering, for instance, together a crew’s unfamiliarity with the destination airport, and perhaps a similarly laid-out airport nearby. Add to this a failure to use secondary navigational aids or otherwise verify the runway they’re looking at is the runway they think they’re looking at, and suddenly it’s not so unthinkable.

And for better or worse, incidents like these remind us that commercial flying remains a very hands-on experience. Despite everything you hear about autopilot and the alleged sophistication of modern jetliners, it’s the fight crew — the pilots — who are very much flying the airplane. While I wish there were a better illustration of it, sometimes it takes an embarrassing mistake to make this point clear.

Photo composite by the author

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17 Responses to “Sorry, Wrong Airport…. Again!”
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  1. Art Knight says:

    We just heard that the Air Canada Airbus A320 was within 100 feet of another airplane. That is in technical terms 😉 RFC (Really F%c*ing Close.)

    These guys have government jobs and are going to have government pensions. Who is in charge of NTSB? Jeff Spicolli?

    They are extremely casual about it. They say they are “probably going to speak with the folks involved.”

    “We’re still very early in our investigation,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said today. “We just got involved a few days ago.”

    “We’re going to, at some point, send a couple investigators to the area to collect information, probably speak with air traffic controllers as well as the flight crew, but there’s no specific date on that,” Holloway said.

    Anyone who flies should be frightened of this lackadaisical response.

  2. Art Knight says:

    Han Solo landed his single-engine Aviat Husky on Taxiway C at midday Feb. 13 after being cleared by air traffic control to use runway 20L. Before touching down, he flew very close to an American Airlines Boeing 737 waiting on another taxiway for instructions to take off.

    Now, an Air Canada plane nearly crashed into 4 big old jet airliners waiting to take off from the taxiway.

    Shoot, I’m not a real pilot, but don’t we have bobby lights, instrument landing system, strobe lights and white lights and red lights for the landing strip and blue lights for the taxiways?

    Can someone please explain how this can happen. Captain Denzel?

  3. Eric Welch says:

    Hi Patrick: Loved your book and love the website, but I think I drew a conclusion you didn’t want to encourage from this post, i.e., that we need *more* automation in the cockpit, not less. Your last paragraph points to how much hands-on flying is done, yet in all of the examples you cited, had there been more automation and less hands-on, I suspect none of the incidents would have been incidents.

  4. Simon says:

    Patrick, are you familiar with a similar blog that goes by the name of JetHead?

    He recently wrote a nice piece on how pilots can (or should) avoid making this mistake.

    Any opinions on what he writes? Anything to add from your side?

  5. Mark Regan says:

    Not that this is a good excuse, but maybe it’s an excuse. The Branson airport only opened in 2009, and it is further beyond the bright lights of Branson than the M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport is.

  6. George Mac says:

    Sorry, but I can’t help thinking this wouldn’t happen to me in my CAR.

    Why don’t planes have GPS?!

    I’m sure I’m now going to hear that GPS is somehow not accredited, tested, etc … OK, it doesn’t need to be a primary system. Just an ancillary data source. Additional confirmation that I am where heading for the airport I think I think I am.

  7. Kyle says:

    Wow! Wouldn’t the ATC let the pilot know he is not at the right coordinates? They have all those fancy radars that give vital flight information……… long as the transponder is on?

  8. Walter says:

    Does any one know what the Landing Felid Length and Balanced Field Lengths are for Avg weight landing?

  9. Eirik says:

    Question; If the pilots were unfamiliar with the airport, isnt there at some point a “airport in sight” message that should have come from the pilots? And if they did pass that message, isnt it weird that the tower at the correct airport didnt answer something like “uhm, I cant see you…sure you are here??”.

    Can someone explain how that conversation would (or should) have sounded like?

  10. Gene says:

    No surprise the two most recent were in Kansas. I’m convinced one could fly across that state in an aircraft with a fuel range of 20 miles. And given the normal wind conditions, all the runways are oriented the same way.

  11. Roger says:

    It looks like there are about 11 million landings a year in the US of commercial jets. That means something that goes wrong every hundred million landings will happen about once every nine years. The story is news because of how rare it is. Obviously the goal should be zero, but sometimes things will happen.

  12. Simon says:

    I agree with all the points you make, Patrick.

    I can’t help but notice there’s a lot of understanding for this crew on aviation websites. Some comment on what a masterpiece stopping a 737 on that short of a runway was. Others complement the 737’s awesome braking system. And yet others claim that since SWA or the FAA will have these guys removed from the cockpit anyway the system’s obviously working fine.

    I remember all the cr*p AF took for their crew on AF447 and can’t help but notice that there are two yardsticks being used to gauge crews. If it’s a AF flight, a landing incident in Indonesia, a Japanese or Korean crew, or an Airbus fly-by-wire aircraft, armchair pilots can’t get into enough of a keyboard rage in condemning the involved crew, equipment, and/or airfield.

    If on the other hand it’s a US carrier, landing a Boeing aircraft on a US airfield the same people show nothing but loving understanding and support. After a couple of these blunders in the US lately, it might be reality check time.

    • Chris says:

      Oh, how short our collective memory is.

      Northwest landed an Airbus (I forget if it was an A319 or A320, but that’s irrelevant) at Ellsworth AFB instead of Rapid City, SD, a few years ago. In daylight visual conditions.

      Northwest (not implying a trend, probably just coincidence) also flew an Airbus past Minneapolis.

      US crews, US carriers, US airports (admittedly not Boeings, but that hardly seems relevant). Yet those crews were roundly excoriated. As they should have been!

      Yes, the Southwest crew did an excellent job of making sure this wasn’t any worse. But neither they nor the Atlas crew landing at Jabara ever should have put themselves in that position in the first place. I actually have more sympathy for the Atlas crew than for the Southwest crew. Jabara’s runway is almost in line with McConnell and oriented very closely, both airports are almost the same elevation, and neither Jabara nor McConnell has any obvious geographical landmarks nearby to differentiate it. None of that was the case with Southwest: the airport where they landed isn’t really in line with the runway they meant to land on, the runways are oriented almost 20 degrees apart, Branson Downtown’s field elevation is almost 400 feet higher (!), and it’s right on the edge of a river, which would show up as a fairly large meandering “black hole” at night.

      Bottom line: if you are not familiar with the area, ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT, you absolutely need to be backing up visual approaches with some kind of instrument approach. If there isn’t a published instrument approach to use as a backup (this is extremely rare but does happen at some airports served by commercial airlines in the US), your spidey sense ought to be tingling extra hard, and you ought to use every resource on the aircraft to back up your Mark I Eyeballs, which — there but for the grace of God go I — are a flawed system.