Wayward Dreamlifter captivates the Air Capital

In a town used to having very large planes in its skies and at its airports, the Air Capital city became captivated for hours Thursday by a plane on the ground.

But not just any plane.

A wayward Dreamlifter – a massive Boeing cargo plane – missed its intended destination of McConnell Air Force Base on Wednesday night and landed nine miles to the north at city-owned Jabara Airport.

As word spread early Thursday about the incident, crowds braved the cold and windy weather to gawk at the plane near 37th and North Webb Road. Some sat in cars that crawled along Webb or in parking lots across the street. Others lined a fence about 100 yards from the runway.

Plenty of people took pictures.

When the Dreamlifter – piloted by a different crew than the one that goofed – finally took off at 1:15 p.m. without a hitch, the crowds cheered and honked horns.

About 20 minutes later, the gigantic white plane with a funky hump on top safely landed at McConnell – more than 16 hours late.

“The whole event was a non-event,” said Victor White, director of Wichita’s city airports.

Not to Lisa Stewart, who stopped by after taking her husband to work.

“It’s bigger than an airplane,” she said. “It’s just so amazing.”

Or to Travis Clark, a former sailor aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy who watched as the modified 747 left Jabara.

“I thought it was amazing that a plane that big could get up enough speed and take off on a short runway,” he said.

Some of the fuel was removed to lighten the plane’s load so that it would be able to take off from a short runway.

“They’ve just got enough fuel to make it to McConnell,” said Paul Spranger of Midwest Corporate Aircraft, the fixed base operation at Jabara.

The event also drew the attention of federal officials. The Federal Aviation Administration got involved; the National Transportation Safety Board took notice.

‘Thanks for your hospitality, Jabara’

Questions and concerns started flying about 9:40 p.m. Wednesday when the Dreamlifter landed at Jabara. It was not long before the plane had its own Twitter account as Jabara Dreamlifter.

As the plane became airborne again Thursday, an anonymous person wrote on the Twitter feed: “And, we’re off! Thanks for your hospitality, Jabara. We’ll try not to do that again.”

The giant air transport routinely flies to McConnell to pick up forward fuselages from nearby Spirit AeroSystems for assembly of Boeing 787 Dreamliners in Seattle or South Carolina.

In this case, though, the plane was coming from Italy via New York and bringing 787 parts to be stored at Boeing Wichita, Boeing officials said.

“The tower was in contact with the pilot,” McConnell spokesman Stefan Bocchino said. “They were the ones who told him where he landed. From what I understand, the guy just landed and had no clue where he was landing.”

Radio traffic between McConnell’s tower and the pilot indicated as much.

Moments after the tower cleared the Dreamlifter to land Wednesday, the air traffic controller told the pilot: “McConnell is nine miles south of you.”

Pilot: “Yes, sir, we just landed at the other airport.”

Pilot: “Apparently, uh, we, uh, have landed at (Beech Factory Airport, which is between McConnell and Jabara).”

McConnell: “Verify. You are on the ground at Beech airport?”

Pilot: “We think so.”

McConnell: “ You are at Beech?”

Pilot: “Affirmative.”

McConnell: “Are you able to make an approach, correction, a departure off the airport and back in the air and to McConnell?”

Pilot: “We are working on those details, sir.”

It was soon sorted out that the plane was at Jabara. Or: very, very big plane at small airport.

Jabara’s runway length of 6,101 feet is almost half the size of the one at McConnell. There were heavy skid marks at the end of the runway where the Dreamlifter stopped.

Boeing contracts with New York-based Atlas Air for pilots to fly one of four Dreamlifters to ferry parts for new Dreamliner construction. Boeing has a permit to use McConnell’s runway, Boeing officials said.

Atlas officials referred questions to Boeing.

Runways easily confused

It’s not unusual for pilots who aren’t familiar with Wichita to mistake Jabara for McConnell, said Steve Stowe, a former chief pilot and manager of flight operations at Boeing in Wichita. Stowe is now a senior engineering test pilot for Bombardier Flight Test Center in Wichita.

“It’s happened before in reduced visibility where a pilot on approach to McConnell mistook Jabara but figured it out pretty quickly,” Stowe said.

When he was at Boeing, “we mentioned this issue to visiting pilots in our local area briefing guide,” he said.

The runways at McConnell and Jabara are also in close alignment and nearly parallel. That could cause a pilot to see Jabara before McConnell, he said. The pilot landed the Dreamlifter coming in from the north.

Beech’s runway is also parallel but farther to the west, Stowe noted.

Atlas Air, which has operated the Dreamlifters since 2010, brought in two specialty pilots from New York to get the plane off the ground at Jabara and to McConnell.

Before allowing the Dreamlifter to leave Jabara, the FAA required that K-96 be shut down near where it runs south of the airport. The plane was on the far south end of the runway facing north, with its tail only about 1,300 feet from K-96.

“At full power, there was concern that the jet blasts could cause debris to fly back over the highway,” White said.

Law enforcement also shut down 37th and 45th streets between Webb and Greenwich for safety reasons, he said.

After all the concern about Jabara’s short runways, the pilots needed only half the runway to take off.

“These guys were excellent,” White said.

The only hitch was that the jet blasts broke a few runway lights, which was expected, White said.

Jabara, which had to be closed after the Dreamlifter landed, reopened shortly after the takeoff.

One concern remains: the runway’s condition.

The Dreamlifter weighs about 600,000 pounds – about 10 times the weight that Jabara’s runway is designed to handle.

Preliminary checks by engineers indicated there was no damage.

“We didn’t see anything visible,” White said, “but engineers will come back in the spring – after there’s a chance for settling and cracking and we have the winter freezes and thawings – to see if there’s any problem.”

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