The world had a lot of fun ridiculing the pilots of the gigantic Boeing Dreamlifter when they landed at the wrong Wichita airport recently.
The funny-looking modified 747 cargo plane landed at Jabara Airport late Nov. 20 instead of at McConnell Air Force Base, its intended destination eight miles to the south. But if you’ve flown over Wichita, you know the pilots of the wayward Dreamlifter could have seen plenty of potential spots to land in the Air Capital.
The pilots could have easily identified at least five airports near McConnell as they flew in from the north, including two run by a pair of the city’s aircraft manufacturers.
Radio communications from the Dreamlifter indicated its crew had no idea Wichita had so many airports.
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In fact, after landing, the pilot asked the air traffic controller how many airports were near McConnell.
Lloyd Stearman Field in Benton, with its 5,100-foot runway, is northeast of the Air Force base. So is Augusta Municipal Airport with its 4,200-foot runway. Beech Field, where the pilots initially thought they’d landed and Cessna Aircraft Field at the manufacturer’s Pawnee plant are nearby. And had the pilots drifted too far to the west, they would have seen Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.
The runways of those airports all align in roughly the same north-south position.
While it’s unusual for a large jet to land at the wrong place, it’s not unheard of, especially in general aviation.
“It’s more common than one might think – especially in a place like Wichita when you have that many landing facilities all over the place,” said Jesse Romo, acting director for the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation.
When general aviation pilots land at the wrong airport, “you kind of go, ‘Oops, my bad,’ and you take off again, and no one knows,” Romo said. “It happens to the best of us and the rest of us.”
Kansas has lots of options for pilots. It’s in the top 10 in the country for the number of public-use airports in a state, with about 140.
“We’ve got a great big network of airports,” Romo said.
Plenty of places to land
Of the state’s 105 counties, 100 have public airports.
That doesn’t count the grass strips, heliports, glider ports and private airports around Wichita and the state.
The Federal Aviation Administration lists more than 40 places to land in the metro area, including 16 in Wichita, according to KDOT. Most are small. Six are heliports for air ambulance use.
There also are dozens of private grass strips in the area not listed on FAA data, Romo said.
Together, the state’s public-use airports contribute more than $10 billion in economic impact to the state, Romo said. “Each one serves its communities for a different purpose,” he said.
Some are regional airports. Others are used for agricultural air applications – or by businesses, recreational fliers or by medical personnel.
About 90 percent of the state’s population is within 30 minutes of an airport. That’s important for air ambulance capabilities, Romo said.
As of 2012, Kansas had 7,174 pilots, including 1,410 flight instructors, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
In 2012, Rooks County opened the Rooks County Regional Airport near Stockton and Plainville north of Hays. It was the only new airport opened in the nation last year, Romo said. The airport replaced two low-use grass strips with a single 5,000-foot paved runway.
“Since it opened, we’ve seen a lot of activity,” Romo said. Already, there’s talk of expanding the airport and building hangars.
50 on the 50
James Oliphant, a pilot who works at an aviation insurance company in Wichita, is quite familiar with the multitude of airports around Kansas.
For his 50th birthday in 2010, Oliphant hopscotched the state, landing his 1986 Mooney at 50 Kansas airports in one day to raise money for cancer research.
He flew more than 1,100 miles to 50 airports in 11 hours and never left the state. He averaged five airports an hour.
“We probably could have done it faster,” Oliphant said. “We learned a lot of things.”
His journey began at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. He flew west to Dodge City, north to Norton, east to Topeka, southeast to Burlington, and points in between, before he ended the day at Stearman Field near Benton.
Now, he’s considering an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the most airport landings in a day. The record of 65 airports is held by a pilot in England, Oliphant said.
“It’s something I’m thinking about,” Oliphant said. “It’s in the early stages.”
Kansas has so many airports, he said. “And they’re in great shape. They’re just super airports.”
He’d said he’d stick with paved airports and avoid the grass strips.
And if he attempts it, he’ll stay within Kansas.
“Why go elsewhere?” Oliphant asked.
Has he ever landed at the wrong airport?
“Me? No,” he said.
Still, he said, he doesn’t fault the Dreamlifter pilots if it was their first time to Kansas.
“If it’s your first time into Wichita, and you didn’t bone up on what’s in our airspace, you could land at the wrong place,” Oliphant said.
A pilot can type a wrong airport identifier into the navigation system, Romo said.
A pilot on the Kansas Air Tour a few years ago, a reenactment of an air tour held in 1928, typed El Dorado into his GPS, and got two choices: Capt. Jack Thomas Airport, the main airport for El Dorado, and the much smaller Patty Field, which is a turf runway, Romo said.
He picked Patty Field. When he arrived, no one was there.
So he called saying he was at the El Dorado airport and wondered where everyone was.
The answer: Capt. Jack Thomas Airport.
Airports with personality
Most area airports provide services, such as flight training, airplane and hangar rentals, maintenance and fuel. Pilots also find them to be a good place to “talk airplanes” with other pilots.
They also have unique personalities.
Wichita Mid-Continent Airport is best known for its commercial airline service and the variety of aviation businesses that surround it.
Jabara Airport serves as a general aviation reliever airport for Mid-Continent. It’s home to 104 planes, which are based on the field, and averages 105 airplane operations a day, according to AirNav.com. Mid-Continent is operated by the Wichita Airport Authority.
Westport Airport, founded in 1946 in the middle of pasture land, is affectionately called Dead Cow International. Its owner says the name arose early on after a pilot hit a cow that wandered onto the runway. Situated near West Street and Pawnee, airport personnel sometimes award a pilot landing there for the first time a lapel pin. The pin is shaped like a cow on its back with its feet up.
The Commemorative Air Force Jayhawk Wing is located there.
Car dealer Les Eck bought the small Riverside Airport in northwest Wichita in 2010. Eck lives near the small airport and knew Tom Sanders, who owned and ran the airport for years after it was founded in 1953. Sanders died in January 2009.
Stearman Field at Benton is a popular gathering place and attracts aviation enthusiasts who often come to watch airplanes take off and land. Many visit the restaurant and patio or gather inside someone’s hangar. Pilots and airplane lovers can live at the airport in hangar-condos and houses that line the runway.
Privately owned Cook Airfield near Rose Hill is home to about 60 airplanes, according to AirNav.com. It was founded in the late 1950s and once served as a Cessna reliever airport where the manufacturer would keep planes that were waiting to be delivered around the country. A skydiving club operates from the airport.
Beech Field and Cessna Aircraft Field at Cessna’s Pawnee plant are used by the aircraft manufacturers.
At home on the runway
Lesser known are the number of private grass strips that dot the Wichita area.
Jerry Griggs and his wife, Luz, live along a 2,100-foot-long grass runway at Lake Waltana in Goddard along with eight or nine other families. Another 50 or 60 homes are in the housing development but are not connected to the runway.
“It’s a community with an airport,” said Griggs, who keeps his Cessna 150 in his garage. “I’m there for the runway.”
The grass strip has pilot-controlled lighting.
Once a year, Griggs and his neighbor host a pancake breakfast and fly-in.
“We sit around the porch and watch airplanes take off,” he said.
Griggs, who works at FlightSafety International, has taught a couple of his neighbors to fly. He’s soloed his daughter and her best friend. He also gives Young Eagle flights to children to introduce them to airplanes.
Some of his neighbors have private grass strips on their property.
In the three-mile radius around Lake Waltana, there are five grass-strip runways.
“To me, Lake Waltana is the best place a pilot can live in Sedgwick County,” Griggs said.