The wayward landing of a giant Boeing cargo jet this week at a small Wichita airport has become more than a brief curiosity.
On Friday, National Transportation Safety Board officials said they had opened an investigation into why the 747 Dreamlifter mistakenly landed at Jabara Airport, near 35th Street North and Webb Road.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said in an e-mail to The Eagle that the investigation would take approximately six to 12 months to complete.
At 9:40 p.m. on Wednesday, the jet – bound for McConnell Air Force Base – landed at Jabara, a city-owned general aviation airport nine miles from the base. The massive airplane, operated for the Boeing Co. by New York-based Atlas Air, was coming from Italy via New York to deliver 787 parts to be stored at Boeing Wichita, which sits next to McConnell’s runway.
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After an overnight stay at Jabara, where the runway is much shorter than the one at McConnell, the airplane was flown by a different Atlas Air crew to McConnell on Thursday afternoon. The plane left Wichita later that same day.
An Atlas Air spokeswoman on Friday declined to talk about the status of the flight crew who landed the airplane at the wrong airport.
“We are providing our full assistance and cooperation to the regulatory authorities who are investigating the landing and cannot comment on anything further,” Atlas Air spokeswoman Bonnie Rodney said in an e-mail.
The NTSB investigation follows the initiation of one by the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said Friday.
“That typically takes several weeks to several months before it is completed,” Cory said of the investigation, which “starts as soon as the event happens.”
Cory said it was not unusual for the FAA to launch an investigation over landing at the wrong airport.
“When anything out of the ordinary happens with an aircraft, from a hard landing all the way up to a crash, we will investigate,” she said.
She said the FAA’s investigation would include checking to see whether any rules of flight were violated, the training of the pilots, the certification and maintenance records of the airplane, and whether any lessons can be learned from the incident.
“We’re just in the beginning of this investigation,” Cory said.
Meanwhile, a couple of experienced general aviation pilots were speculating how the crew of the Dreamlifter could have mistaken Jabara for McConnell.
David Dewhirst, a flight instructor who said he has lots of experience landing at Jabara at night, said even from miles out McConnell has a much bigger runway, numerous lights and a large tarmac where scores of Boeing KC-135 air refueling tankers are parked. He also said each airport has different coordinates that are used to plug into an airplane’s navigation system, which helps guide the pilots and aircraft to the destination.
“I can’t imagine how anybody could confuse the two,” said Dewhirst, who also owns Sabris Corp., an airplane management company.
Both Dewhirst and Kay Alley, a professional general aviation pilot for 30 years who has experience landing at Jabara at night, wondered why controllers in the tower at McConnell – who cleared the Dreamlifter to land there – didn’t notice on radar that the modified jumbo jet was at too low of an altitude for an approach to McConnell.
“I think someone (in the tower) was not paying attention,” Alley said.
A McConnell official said controllers there would not be available for comment.
“This is under investigation by the FAA,” McConnell spokesman Stefan Bocchino said Friday. “Whenever they’re finished, they’ll give out the information on what happened during this particular flight.”
“Technically, the controllers at McConnell are not certified radar controllers,” said Brent Spencer, a former air traffic controller in Wichita and now an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. He said while they do have radars in the McConnell tower, the controllers there use it more as a reference and “to get some limited information.”
But Spencer said a plane of the Dreamlifter’s size, with its landing lights on, should be visible from the McConnell tower on approach to the base.
“I’m a little surprised that the tower guy didn’t see him,” Spencer said, adding that visually seeing the aircraft could be hampered by weather conditions.
A spokesman for the National Weather Service in Wichita said that visibility shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday was 10 miles and with a ceiling of 3,900 feet.