WICHITA, Kan. —
Moments after touching down, the pilot of a cargo-hauling jumbo jet seemed confused in his exchanges with air traffic controllers who had guided his Boeing 747 toward a Kansas Air Force base.
When puzzled controllers told the pilot that he was 9 miles north of his intended destination, he made an unusual admission. “Uh, yes sir, we just landed at the other airport.”
His calm, understated response belied the dangers of the situation: A mammoth jet had just landed on the wrong stretch of concrete, miles from its planned path, in the dark. The runway just happened to be long enough.
As he tried to sort out the situation over the radio, the pilot could be heard mixing up east and west in his notes, acknowledging he could not read his own handwriting and getting distracted from the conversation by “looking at something else.”
The 747, flown by a two-person crew with no passengers, intended to touch down late Wednesday at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, where it was supposed to deliver parts for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner to a nearby company that makes large sections of the next-generation jet.
Instead, the cargo plane landed to the north, at the smaller Col. James Jabara Airport.
The jet took off again Thursday and within minutes landed at its original destination.
The plane flew into an area where there are three airports with similar runway configurations: the Air Force base, the Jabara airfield and a third facility in between called Beech Airport.
That could help explain the mistake. Pilots also say it can be tough to tell a long runway from a shorter one on final approach. And Jabara is directly on the path toward McConnell, so the only difference would be that a pilot on final approach would reach it a little sooner.
While it’s rare for a pilot to land at the wrong airport, confusion is common.
Once every month or two, a pilot headed toward Wichita’s Mid-Continent airport begins to turn toward McConnell by mistake, said Brent Spencer, a former air traffic controller in Wichita who is now an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
Mid-Continent and McConnell “have an almost identical runway setup, so it was not at all uncommon for an airliner or someone coming in from the east ... to pick up the wrong runway lights,” he said. It happened often enough that “we would always watch for that, and we could always correct the pilot.”
Jabara’s 6,100-foot runway is toward the low end of what Boeing recommends for the 747. How much runway the plane needs varies depending on weather, the weight of the loaded plane and the airport’s elevation.
Boeing owns the plane involved in the mistaken landing, but it’s operated by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, a New York-based company that provides crews or planes to companies that need them.
An Atlas Air spokeswoman declined to answer questions and referred inquiries to Boeing.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said the company would be consulting with Atlas to “find out exactly what happened so that it doesn’t happen again.”
The Federal Aviation Administration planned to investigate whether the pilot followed controllers’ instructions or violated any federal regulations.
After the pilot concluded he had landed at the wrong airport, the pilot and controllers tried to figure out where the plane was.
At one point, a controller read to the pilot the coordinates where he saw the plane on radar. When the pilot read the coordinates back, he mixed up east and west.
“Sorry about that, couldn’t read my handwriting,” the pilot said on a recording provided by LiveATC.net.
A few moments later, the pilot asked how many airports there are to the south of McConnell. But the other airports are both north of McConnell.
“I’m sorry, I meant north,” the pilot said when corrected. “I’m sorry. I’m looking at something else.”
They finally agreed on where the plane was after the pilot reported that a smaller plane, visible on the radar of air traffic control, had just flown overhead.
The modified 747 is one of a fleet of four that hauls parts around the world to make Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The “Dreamlifter” is a 747-400 with its body expanded to hold whole fuselage sections and other large parts. If a regular 747 with its bulbous double-decker nose looks like a snake, the overstuffed Dreamlifter looks like a snake that swallowed a rat.
According to flight-tracking service FlightAware, this particular DreamLifter has been shuttling between Kansas and Italy, where the center fuselage section and part of the tail of the 787 are made.
Spirit AeroSystems, which is next to McConnell, completes the sections and sends them to Boeing plants in Washington state and South Carolina for assembly into finished jets.
Although rare, landings by large aircraft at smaller airports have happened from time to time.
In July last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., landed without incident at the small Peter O. Knight Airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area, and base officials introduced an updated landing procedure to mitigate future problems.
The following month, a Silver Airways pilot making one of the Florida airline’s first flights to Bridgeport, W. Va., mistakenly landed his Saab 340 at a tiny airport in nearby Fairmont.
The pilot touched down safely on a runway that was just under 3,200 feet long and 75 feet wide — normally considered too small for the passenger plane.