WICHITA, Kan. — Moments after touching down, the pilot of a cargo-hauling jumbo jet seemed confused in his exchanges with air traffic controllers who had guided his Boeing 747 toward a Kansas Air Force base.
When puzzled controllers told the pilot that he was 9 miles north of his intended destination, he made an unusual admission. “Uh, yes sir, we just landed at the other airport.”
His calm, understated response belied the danger of the situation: A mammoth aircraft had just landed on the wrong stretch of concrete, miles from its planned path, in the dark. The runway just happened to be long enough.
As he tried to sort out the situation over the radio, the pilot could be heard mixing up east and west in his notes, acknowledging he could not read his own handwriting and getting distracted from the conversation by “looking at something else.”
The 747, flown by a two-person crew with no passengers, intended to touch down late Wednesday at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, where it was supposed to deliver parts for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner to a nearby company that makes large sections of the next-generation jet.
Instead, the cargo plane landed to the north, at the smaller Col. James Jabara Airport.
The jet took off again Thursday and within minutes landed at its original destination.
The crew had flown into an area where there are three airports with similar runway configurations: the Air Force base, the Jabara airfield and a third facility in between called Beech Airport.
That could help explain the mistake. Pilots also say it can be tough to tell a long runway from a shorter one on final approach. And Jabara is directly on the path toward McConnell, so the only difference would be that a pilot on final approach would reach it a little sooner.
While it’s rare for a pilot to land at the wrong airport, occasional confusion is not unusual.
Every month or two, a pilot headed toward Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport begins to turn toward McConnell by mistake, said Brent Spencer, a former air traffic controller in Wichita who is now an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
Mid-Continent and McConnell “have an almost identical runway setup, so it was not at all uncommon for an airliner or someone coming in from the east ... to pick up the wrong runway lights,” he said. It happened often enough that “we would always watch for that, and we could always correct the pilot.”
Jabara’s 6,100-foot runway is toward the low end of what Boeing recommends for the 747. How much runway the plane needs varies depending on weather, the weight of the loaded plane and the airport’s elevation.
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