How to Land at the Wrong Airport with ATC Help

Taney County AirportProximity of Clark Downtown (Taney County) Airport to Branson Airport, Missouri.

Last week a listener wrote to tell me about an incident in which a general aviation aircraft landed at the wrong airport. He said this reminded him of other incidents in which airplanes ended up landing at the wrong airport. He asked me what I thought causes pilots to land at the wrong airport. I said that sounded like a question I should answer in a Radar Contact show. Wouldn’t you know it? Two days later, Southwest Airlines lands an airplane at the wrong airport.

Here is what’s coming up: An analysis of some reports from pilots who landed or attempted to land at the wrong airport while in contact with ATC. Next, my formula for how to land at the wrong airport. I have 12 easy-to-follow steps to help you get your name in the media headlines and get the wrong kind of attention from the FAA. All this plus Your Question of the Week. Let’s do it.

This show is also available at iTunes as the Radar Contact podcast.
More ATC comm tips and conversations with active air traffic controllers at twitter.com/atc_jeff.

Show Notes:

  1. On Sunday, January 12, 2014, Southwest Airlines Flight 4013 landed at the wrong airport. This was the second of two similar incidents in less than a month.
  2. Less than a month ago, an Atlas Air cargo jet landed at Jabara Airport in Wichita, Kansas instead of the intended destination–McConnell Air Force Base a few miles away.
  3. These two incidents are among many others. In this show, I analyze 2 reports submitted to NASA’s Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS) that involve pilots attempting to land at the wrong airport.
  4. You can search for reports about pilots who landed at the wrong airport by going to this link: http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/search/database.html. Click “Start Search”. On the search page, click the link at the bottom center titled “Text contains [Words]”. Type “wrong airport” and be sure to add the quotation marks. Click the “Save” button. Click “Search.” Finally, click “Show all reports.”
  5. The 2 main ingredients involving an incident in which a pilot lands or attempts to land at the wrong airport are: 2 airports less than 10 miles apart with closely aligned runways; and a pilot who is distracted.
  6. Once ATC has directed you towards a runway in visual conditions, the controller will assume you can remain oriented to the airport and proceed to land under your own navigation.
  7. As indicated in ASRS reports, ATC frequently does not catch the error if a pilot suddenly deviates from an ATC instruction and makes a bid to land at the wrong airport.

Here are my 12 tips for landing at the wrong airport:

1. By all means, pick an airport you have never flown into before. In one of the examples I read to you today, the pilot had previously landed at his intended destination, you will increase your chances of landing in the wrong place if it is your first time landing there.

2. Pick an area where two airports are separated by less than 10 miles and the runways at both airports are aligned within 20 degrees of each other.

3. Although not always possible, try to plan your arrival for a time when the sun is setting or rising, or the inflight visibility is poor.

4. Do not, I repeat, do not do any advance study of the airport layout or the orientation of one airport in relation to the other. Do not do any map study to consider where roads, buildings and other prominent landmarks sit relative to your destination airport. Do not try to visualize what the lay of the land will look like given your general direction of approach into the area. Make your entire arrival and approach to the airport is a complete surprise.

5. Similar to the fourth tip, do not think ahead. Be completely reactive to what you see through the front windscreen of your cockpit.

6. If, as you approach your destination, you feel rushed or disoriented, by all means press on. Do nothing to give yourself extra time to get caught up, such as breaking off of your arrival and circling in an area away from the flow of air traffic. The more rushed you feel, the better your chances of becoming disoriented which is key to landing at the wrong airport.

7. If there are navaids, such as VORTAC’s or NDB’s in the area, do not tune those in and use them to help you stay oriented relative to your intended destination. For example, if the correct airport sits underneath the 330-degree radial for 15 DME using a local VORTAC, do not tune that VORTAC into your navigation radio.

8. If your airplane has advanced navigation equipment on board, such as GPS, inertial reference system, or a moving map, ignore that information. If your instrument panel’s moving map display cannot be turned off, keep the display set to a scale large enough so all of the airports in the area are packed tightly together on the display, making one nearly indistinguishable from the other.

9. If the runway you intend to land on has an ILS setup, do not tune that in to help verify you have lined up with the correct runway. A centered needle on your localizer indicator provides valuable information you do not want. It really wouldn’t help much anyways if there are runways at 2 different airports exactly aligned with each other. Since 2 different runways exactly aligned with each other applies to maybe a handful of airports in the United States, simply ignore localizer information at all airports.

10. Distract yourself as much as possible during the arrival phase. Conversation with passengers about non-flight related information is a great idea.

11. If something does not feel right, by all means, ignore that feeling and press on. For example, even though ATC sets you up perfectly for an unrushed, normal final approach visually lock on to the first runway you see and go for it, even it means making a sharp turn off course or diving down to lose altitude. If the runway ahead does not match up with what you expected, for example, the orientation of the runway looks off, or the pavement is different, or the runway lighting is wrong, or the taxiway layout seems wrong, or the airport hangers and buildings are not where they are supposed to be, ignore all of that too.

12. Finally, my most important tip. If you are working with ATC during your arrival and a question comes up about which airport is the correct airport, by all means do not ask ATC for help.

If you have any questions about this formula, please write to me at jeff@ATCcommunication.

Your Question of the Week:

You have just accidentally landed at the wrong airport and the airport where you landed is a controlled airport. In a telephone conversation after the incident, the tower supervisor tells you he will be filing a report with the FAA. You decide to file your own report on the incident using NASA’s Aviation Safety and Reporting System.

Here’s your question: How may your report influence the FAA’s decision to impose a civil penalty or a suspension of your pilot license as result of this incident?

When you think you know the answer to that question, go to ATCcommunication.com/answers. There you will find a complete answer to this week’s question along with a complete explanation of how that answer was derived.

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