A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

February 18th, 2014 by Ron Rapp

I wrote a bit about wrong-airport landings last month after the Dreamlifter made an unscheduled detour to a small civilian airport in Wichita.

They say things happen in threes, so it wasn’t surprising that the faux pas keeps recurring. Next was a Southwest Airlines flight — which really could have ended badly as they put their 737 down on a far shorter runway (3,738 feet) than any I’ve seen a Boeing airliner utilize.

Speaking of landing distance, for most Part 91 pilots, as long as you can stop on the available runway without bending anything, you are good to go from a legal standpoint. Airlines and charter operators, on the other hand, are required to have a significant safety margin on their landing runways. 14 CFR 121.195(b) dictates that a full stop landing be possible within 60 percent of the effective length of the runway. To put that into perspective, John Wayne Airport’s runway 19R is considered to be one of the shortest used by major airlines on a regular basis. That runway is 5,700 feet long, so landing on a 3,700 foot strip — at night, no less — must have been exciting for all concerned.

The third (and hopefully last one) for a while was a Boeing 787 which narrowly managed to avert landing at the wrong field, but only with the help of an alert air traffic controller.

I related the story of my own Wichita experience in order to explain how easily one airport can be mistaken for another. But I can take it a step further: I once witnessed a very memorable wrong-airport landing.

Intruder Alert

It was 2008, and I was in Arizona for an aerobatic contest being held at the Marana Regional Airport (which also happens to be where all those Starships are awaiting their final fate). Ironically, a number of FAA inspectors had been on-site just 24 hours earlier, ramp checking every pilot and aircraft as they arrived for the competition. Too bad they didn’t show up the next day, because they missed quite a show.

At Marana, the aerobatic box is located two miles southeast of the field, and at the time the incident occurred the contest was in full swing. These events require a large contingent of volunteers to operate, so traditionally competitors will help with contest duties when their category is not flying. I was sitting just outside the aerobatic box, judging a combined group of Advanced power and glider pilots when I overheard someone at the chief judge’s table calling out a traffic threat. Despite waivers, NOTAMs, ATIS broadcasts, and other information about the contest’s presence, it’s not unheard of for a non-participating aircraft to wander through the aerobatic box.

The chief judge had just cleared a new competitor into the box, so he immediately called back and told him to return to the holding area and keep an eye out for the encroaching airplane. I scanned the sky and visually acquired a minuscule speck in the air south of the box. I figured it was a small general aviation aircraft of some sort, but as time passed and the tiny dot grew in size, it became apparent that this was no Bonanza or Skyhawk. We all watched in amazement as a Boeing 757 materialized in all its splendor. The landing gear extended and it flew a beautiful descending left turn right through the aerobatic box and dipped below our horizon.

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

“Well that was weird”, I thought. But hey, this was my first time at Marana. Perhaps there was some sort of charter flight coming in, or the airplane needed to divert for a medical emergency or mechanical problem.

The judging line maintains radio contact with the airport’s traffic frequency as well as the contest volunteers at the airport via a separate set of walkie-talkies, so we heard the sound of silence over the CTAF as this happened. I was later told that the Air Force Academy cadets, who had come out from Colorado Springs to compete in various glider categories, were on the runway getting a TG-10C glider (a military version of the Blanik L-13AC) hooked up to a tow plane when it became clear that the 757 planned on using that same piece of pavement. The cadets scrambled, clearing the runway in record time just as the Boeing touched down smoothly on runway 30, oblivious to everything going on around it.

Thanks to the radios, we were able to follow the action from the judging line even though we couldn’t see the airport from our location. It must have been shortly after they turned off onto a taxiway that the flight crew realized something wasn’t right, because the 757 stopped on the taxiway and just sat there. Marana’s airport manager tried to raise them on the airport’s frequency, 123.0 MHz, but had no luck. For what seemed like an eternity, there’s was nothing to hear but the sound of the Boeing’s two engines idling. Were their radios out, we wondered?

Mystery Solved

Then someone suggested trying 123.05, the frequency for nearby Pinal Airpark. It was at that moment everyone realized exactly what had happened. Wikipedia describes Pinal best:

Its main purpose is to act as a “boneyard” for civilian commercial aircraft. Old airplanes are stored there with the hope that the dry desert climate will mitigate any form of corrosion in case the aircraft is pressed into service in the future. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world. Even so, many aircraft which are brought there wind up being scrapped.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Pinal and Marana are eight miles apart and share the same 12/30 runway orientation. The 757 was devoid of passengers and cargo; it was being ferried to Pinal for long-term storage after the Mexican airline which operated it declared bankruptcy. Since Pinal has no instrument approach procedures, the pilots had to make a visual approach into the airfield and simply fixated on Marana once they saw it.

Once the airport manager established radio contact with the crew, he didn’t want to let them move since he was concerned about the weight bearing capacity of the taxiways. However, the pilots gave him their current weight and were allowed to proceed. So they taxied back to runway 30 and just took off, presumably landing at Pinal a couple of minutes later.

That was the last I ever heard about that incident, but I’ve often wondered what happened to the pilots. Was the FAA notified? Was there an investigation? Did the airline know? And because they were in the process of liquidation, would it have mattered anyway? I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.

Analysis

What makes this incident a little different from the others I discussed above is that it took place in broad daylight instead of at night. You’d think the pilots would have noticed the lack of a boneyard at Marana, but if it was their first time going into Pinal, perhaps it wouldn’t have been missed. When multiple airports exist in the same geographic area, they tend to have similar runway orientations because the prevailing winds are more-or-less the same.

As I was writing this, AVweb posted a story about an Associated Press report on this very subject.

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.

The Marana 757 incident is probably one of those which does not appear in the ASRS database. At the very least, it doesn’t appear under the AVQ identifier for Marana Regional Airport. But if the press had found out about it (which they would have in this age of smartphones if there were passengers on board), I’m sure it would have created the same stir we’ve seen with the other incidents.

It might seem that wrong-airport landings are becoming more common, but the statistics show that to be a coincidence. “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.”

As a charter pilot, the thing I’m wondering about is whether “commercial aircraft” includes Part 135 flights. Based on the 29,000 figure, I’d assume it does not. Unlike scheduled airlines, charters can and do go to any airport at any time. On larger aircraft, the opspec can literally be global. You’d think this would make a wrong-airport scenario more common, but after several years of flying to little corners of the globe, I think this kind of worldwide operation might lower the odds of wrong-airport landing since the destination is frequently unfamiliar and therefore the crew is already on guard.

Theoretically we should always fly that way. Unfortunately, human nature can make it tough to sustain that healthy sense of skepticism when a long day concludes at an accustomed airfield. Perhaps recognizing that fact is half the battle.

Ron Rapp

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 7,000-plus hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

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The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Dave Sandidge

    I hardly fly anything but an Airbus on scheduled routes to airports I’ve been to hundreds of times before, but I like to think that if I were faced with the prospect of flying to a totally unknown (to me), off-route, non-commercial airport with no or limited navigation facilities, I would at least take advantage of Goggle Earth and get a minimal bird’s eye perspective of lay lay ahead for me there.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      Not a bad idea, Dave. “All available information”, right? I’ve used that to get the lay of the land on potential alternate landing spots, especially when arriving and departing an unfamiliar airport in a single-engine aircraft. I always thought it would suck to lose the engine at 1000 feet and THEN realize that I could have done more pre-flight research into what alternatives might be in the vicinity.

  • Jim Klein

    I used to work at a flight school in Mesa, Arizona. It is for that very same reason that we did not allow student solos to fly to Pinal Airport (MZJ), only Marana Regional (AVQ). While the main runways at both airports are oriented 12/30, only Marana Regional has an intersecting runway (3/21).

    On a related note, about 2 years ago I was landing at my home base of Falcon Field in Mesa (FFZ), when a Cessna Citation landed as well. The tower controller asked the Citation pilot where he was parking, and the pilot replied that he needed to go to the Citation Service Center. The tower controller was not sure where that was, but fortunately I was still on frequency, and chimed in. The service center is located at Mesa Gateway Airport (now Phoenix/Mesa Gateway Airport) – about 10 miles south, not Mesa Falcon Field. Oops!

    • Wes Conkle

      I can’t help but wonder if you were so kind as to offer taxi directions to the Citation pilot?

      • Barnabas Path

        It would go something like this:

        “Would you like taxi-back instructions?”

        “Uh, yeah, sure, that would be great.”

        “OK, first, you’re going to need a chart …”

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I bet that one’s not in the ASRS database either.

  • Randy Looney

    In the 1970′s I worked as a lineman at Chandler Airport (FCH) in Fresno, California. Chandler has two parallel runways aligned 11/29. Across town we have the Fresno Air Terminal (FAT) with two parallel runways oriented 12/30. We had so many pilots mistake one airport for the other that they finally painted the FAT tower blue and gray and the FCH tower yellow. That way if a FAT controller suspected he was talking to a pilot who was actually in the FCH flight pattern he would simply ask the pilot, “What color is the tower at the airport you are circling?”

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      That’s an interesting idea. I always thought painting the airport name on the runway or taxiway in huge letters was another smart idea. I’ve been to a few airports where it was painted on a slope right before the runway threshold, too. Some aerodromes have “WHEELS” written there to remind the pilot to check the gear one last time.

      On the other hand, I was one a XC flight with a student pilot one time. I asked him to divert to another airport. When he became unsure of his location, he found a prominent point to circle over while attempting to figure out where he was. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the point he circled over was the destination airport, and he was flying perfect orbits around not just the runway, but the portion that had the airport name painted in massive capital letters! He never put 2 and 2 together. We just went around and around while he looked at the chart and various landmarks out the window. After 10 minutes of this, I literally had to point at the runway and ask him to read what it said out loud. You’ve never seen someone so deflated.

      They say a pilot’s IQ drops 10 points when they climb into the cockpit, and I believe it.

  • Gary Strong

    Check Google Earth? Here is an answer for this goof-up. On my computer Google Earth has Marana and Pinal named on the same airport (for the boneyard) and Arva for Marana (which is named Marana on the runway paint.)

  • http://aopa Jim Caufman

    Ferry flights are conducted under Part 91 rules. No paying pax or cargo. I have done a bunch of them in 727s 757s and DC-8. Some of them were one engine inop to where the engine could be changed.

  • Robert Lewis

    Back in 1969 or 1970 a Seaboard World DC8 landed at Marble Mountain in Veitnam after being cleared to land at DaNang. Not sure how long the runway was at that time as it was lengthened from about 2000 feet to about 5000 feet at various times. They unloaded the passengers and the pilot and copilot got the plane off the ground and back to DaNang. There is a video on you tube of the take off.

  • Mike Perkins

    Honest to cripe. What are people looking at? My 14-year-old kneeboard AvMap, which is worth about $325 on e-Bay now, is incapable of leading me to the wrong airport. All I have to do is punch in three or four letters and look at it.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      You can run into trouble with GPS units, too. Like any computer, it’s junk in/junk out. I wrote an article about that a few years ago.

      You absolutely CAN get lost with a full color moving map in front of you. I’ve seen it happen to students with whom I was flying. At the end of the day, the only moving map that really matters is the one inside your head. :)

  • Cary Alburn

    It was easier to understand landing on the wrong airport, pre GPS, especially when there are multiple airports in the area, all with similar configurations. But with just about everyone and their brother being equipped with at least one, often several, GPSs, it’s harder to understand. If you plug in the identifier, press the “direct to” button, it’ll take you there, whether it’s an inexpensive hand-held or a fancy glass panel mount.

  • Dave Fitzgerald

    More interesting than you think. I fly 757′s, and have quite a bit of time in them. If the airport is not in the FMS data base, there are special procedures to follow to land at an airport that isn’t there. GPWS is one. If you land at an airport not there, it goes nuts and thinks you are going to crash-the terrain avoidance system.

    With no instrument approach, and not in the data base, it would be very easy to land at the wrong airport. As already mentioned, ferry flights by transport category planes are often conducted under FAR part 91, and most likely, nothing happened at all to the pilots, if their company even knew about the error. However, their company op specs would have required take off and performance data. So, likely FAR’s violated would have been because of not complying with company op specs, that’s it. They also would have needed dispatch concurrence for the flight and a flight plan, regardless of how short the flight was.

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I would imagine that if the FAA inspectors who had been at the airport the previous day had seen the incident, the pilots would have been hit with a 91.13 charge. They attach that to virtually everything.

  • Patrick

    There was an incident at Newark airport outside NYC a few years back where a Continental Airlines crew landed on adjoining taxiway Zulu instead of runway 29. Hopefully they would have noticed had there been aircraft taxiing on there. I am curious why airline SOP doesn’t require precision approach whenever one is available.

    See http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/brief2.aspx?ev_id=20061101X01592&ntsbno=NYC07IA015&akey=1 for the NTSB report.

    • David Troup

      Reliance on precision approach all the time, usually managed by cockpit automation, results in pilots incapable of flying without it — the apparent cause of the Asiana crash at SFO last summer. So I’m not sure that’s the answer.

      Pilots need to question their assumptions and always use multiple methods to VERIFY them, and that’s never more important than when landing at an unfamiliar airport, or when landing at night. I don’t think there’s any substitute for using your gray matter.

  • http://mediacom Robert Booth

    For 20 years I flew out of New Haven, CT (KHVN). We had frequent occasions of planes landing there when the pilot intended to land at Brideport (KBDR) nine miles away. Similar layouts right on the coast.

    The worst error, however, occurred when a pilot landed at KHVN, thinking he was at Hyannis, MA (KHYA), over a hundred miles away!

    • http://www.rapp.org/ Ron Rapp

      I think Douglas Corrigan has that guy beat. Instead of Long Beach, California he landed in Dublin, Ireland; a mere 5,157 mile error. Instead of wrong airport, that’s a “wrong continent” landing!

      • David Troup

        I don’t think there’s any doubt that Corrigan’s “mistake” was intentional… he’d been prohibited from making the flight, until he did so “accidentally.”

  • Bob Dillon

    Reminds me of the time in the 80′s when as a fairly new pilot I was making my first trip to Galt field in Woodstock, IL with my wife in the right seat. I was all lined up when the following interchange took place.

    Wife: There are houses along the runway

    Me: Yeah, I didn’t realize it was a residential airpark

    Wife: And there’s a tree at this end of the runway

    Me: Yeah, we can clear it ok

    Wife: How come there’s mailboxes along the runway?

    Me: Going around!

    Galt was parallel, but two miles north.

  • http://www.heritagewings.com Charlie Branch

    How long…has this been goin’ on…? (That could lyrics for a song someday. ;>)

    In the mid-1950s, one night a KC-97 headed home to Mountain Home AFB landed at Glenns Ferry Airport instead, a few miles shy of the destination. One had a tower and the other did not, among other dissimilarities that included the town size and runway length, and the strobe pattern…

    While not an unintended landing site, in the 1970s I seem to recall that a couple of UAL pilots were asked and tasked with flying a DC-6 off a mesa in Colorado, abandoned after a drug run.

  • David

    Maybe the good old: “overfly the airport, look at the winds, fly a pattern” would have helped

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