Landings at wrong airports are lessons in what not to do

A Boeing 747 LCF Dreamlifter accidentally landed at Jabara Airport in Wichita in November thinking it was landing at McConnell Air Force Base. (November 21, 2013)
A Boeing 747 LCF Dreamlifter accidentally landed at Jabara Airport in Wichita in November thinking it was landing at McConnell Air Force Base. (November 21, 2013) File photo

Two highly publicized airliner landings at wrong airports created a lot of discussion among pilots, flight departments, flight instructors and even some passengers.

Some instructors say they are using the incidents as case studies or reiterating in training how to avoid those kinds of situations.

In November, Boeing’s massive Dreamlifter, a highly modified 747, landed at the smaller Jabara Airport in Wichita rather than at McConnell Air Force Base as it delivered fuselage sections to Boeing. Atlas Air operates Dreamlifter flights.

In January, pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight landed at the smaller airport in Hollister, Mo., instead of the Branson, Mo., airport, six miles away. Passengers were then bused to the correct airport.

“These two airlines and hopefully other organizations are saying (that) if it happened to them, it can happen to anyone,” said Dan Boedigheimer, director of instructional design at Advanced Aircrew Academy in St. Johns, S.C. Boedigheimer provides training to business jet pilots and comes to Wichita to speak about human factors and other issues at Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown. “Most organizations learn from their mistakes.”

Business jet pilots say passengers are making subtle jokes about the incidents or asking direct questions about whether it could happen to them, he said.

“The questions come up,” Boedigheimer said, especially since passengers in business jets have close interaction with the pilots, unlike commercial airline passengers.

The pilots are reassuring passengers that the best operating techniques are in place, Boedigheimer said.

Advanced Aircrew Academy provides online pilot training that addresses regulations, automation, crew resource management and hazardous materials, Boedigheimer said.

Wrong airport landings are a special emphasis item in the company’s training, he said.

He’s had requests asking that the Dreamlifter and Southwest Airlines incidents be included as case studies in training materials and put in a prominent place.

In each of the incidents, the orientation of the wrong runways lined up similarly to the correct ones, and the pilots flew visual approaches into the airports.

The frequency of cases in which pilots land at the wrong airport doesn’t appear to be increasing, although no one really tracks them, experts say.

For the companies, “It’s more of an embarrassment than anything,” Boedigheimer said. No one was hurt in either errant landing.

Typically, lining up to land at the wrong airport is done in good weather conditions and more often at night.

Mind over automation

When pilots stop using the automation in the cockpit and begin relying on their eyesight, their minds can play tricks, Boedigheimer said.

“We call that ‘confirmation bias,’ ” or the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. They tend to filter out potentially useful information that doesn’t conform with preconceived notions.

“It’s a mental bias that we all have when things look similar,” Boedigheimer said. “During stressful situations or high workload situations or even fatigue is when these mental biases come up.”

It’s the kind of situation in which technology can be especially useful.

“We have so much automation in the cockpit that can help us out, that can show us precisely within a couple of meters where the aircraft is,” he said. “Using that information, it becomes obvious you’re not in the right spot.”

But pilots must pay attention.

Most organizations have policies requiring pilots to use automation to back up what they are seeing out the window, he said.

“It’s an industry’s best practice to have that policy,” Boedigheimer said.

In incidences such as these, either the pilots aren’t following the policy or there isn’t one, he said.

Unless the frequency increases or there are injuries, Boedigheimer doubts the Federal Aviation Administration will create more regulations to address the issue.

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency is still gathering information and studying it to find out exactly what happened in the Missouri and Wichita cases. It won’t draw any conclusions or propose changes until that process is complete.

‘Best practice’ reminder

At Kansas State University’s aviation program in Salina, students have had questions about the incidents, said Tom Karcz, an assistant professor in the program.

“We’ve certainly had the classroom discussions,” Karcz said.

Although wrong landings don’t happen often, “from a training standpoint, it reiterates the fact that no matter what the weather, no matter what airplane you’re flying, it’s always good to have a backup,” Karcz said. “Even if it’s visual and nice weather, have some sort of instrument approach procedure that further validates the runway that you’re going to – that the instrument approach is only to that particular runway.”

The incidents are examples of why pilots have to constantly be vigilant, said Kurt Barnhart, dean of K-State Salina's aviation program.

Wrong airport landings have not been a problem the school has struggled with, he said, although “that’s not saying it couldn’t happen tomorrow.”

It’s easy to do, especially when looking out the front of the airplane and seeing runways with similar orientations, especially at night with poor visibility.

Pilots must make sure the airport’s identifier is dialed in correctly and make sure the distance to the airport makes sense.

The recent events led Beechcraft’s flight department to reiterate its policy and best practices for that scenario with its flight operations team, said Beechcraft spokeswoman Nicole Alexander.

“We do already have a policy in place to address that type of an issue,” Alexander said.

FlightSafety in Wichita works mostly with experienced professional aviators and those buying new airplanes, said Rich High, manager of FlightSafety’s Cessna Learning Center in Wichita.

Lining up to the wrong runway is a basic mistake. FlightSafety hasn’t changed its training, however.

“That’s because it’s already one of the focus items,” High said.

It’s a good subject to discuss, he said.

“In our training, we talk about that all the time, about how you load up your instrument approach,” High said. “So much information today is available in our aircraft.”

“We emphasize instrument training; we emphasize approaches; we emphasize all of the scan items that would go into it,” High said.

Sometimes pilots want to get down quickly and instead of shooting an instrument approach take visual vectors to the runway.

It’s important not to get complacent.

Investigations continue

Professional pilots pay attention to incidents and accidents. And aviation magazines include sections that highlight the latest ones.

But “we’re humans,” High said. “You’re talking to a guy who made a gear-up pass. I can remember that like it was yesterday. That always makes me think, ‘When am I going to drop the gear.’ I learned big time from that mistake.”

Atlas Air, the airline operating Dreamlifter flights, now requires pilots to remain on an instrument approach procedure, even in visual conditions, until they begin the final approach to the runway, according to a report by Aviation International News, which obtained an Atlas crew-training video.

Boedigheimer says he’s guessing Southwest is also in the process of looking over its training program.

An Atlas Air spokeswoman declined comment, saying the incident is still under investigation.

A Southwest spokeswoman said the airline has not made changes as it waits for the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on its investigation.

“We continue to work closely with the NTSB,” said Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King.

Martha King, who owns King Schools in San Diego with her husband, John, said the two wrong-landing incidents have been a huge topic of conversation. The Kings create pilot training materials.

Most are asking how could that happen, with the majority of pilots saying “you know, it’s pretty easy to do it. Let me tell you about the time I, A, landed at, or B, nearly landed at, the wrong airport,” King said. “There’s a significant understanding out here on how easy it is to nearly do that.”

King said the incidents will likely eventually work their way into some of their training materials, such as in a practical course like an Instrument Flight Rules refresher course.

The issue also will likely end up in one of the columns the Kings write for an aviation magazine regarding risk management and how to manage technology without becoming too dependent on it.

Brain calibration

King hopes that going forward, training programs will talk more about the transition from instrument to visual approaches in good weather and when the airport is in sight.

Once pilots get lined up to the airport, they tend to look out the front window.

“If there are multiple airports in a line, there is a real tendency not to realize what the perception is going to be, depending on whether the airport is five miles away or 15 miles out,” King said.

“It’s sometimes hard to get your brain calibrated on what it’s going to look like,” she said.

Pilots should set up the proper glide-slope to the runway at an appropriate descent for the distance to the runway, King said. Then if the plane is at too high of an altitude when the runway appears, that should be a signal the airport is not the correct one, King said.

“If it requires me to increase my rate of descent to get down, what it tells me, that’s not the airport I should be landing at,” she said.

King said she has almost lined up for the wrong airport flying into Wichita.

“I used to do it on a semi-regular basis,” she said. She would begin to line up for McConnell instead of Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

“Thanks to John being my co-pilot, he would usually hit me over the head and say, ‘That’s the Air Force Base. Where are you going?’ ” King said.

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