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Why Did That Jet Land At The Wrong Airport? Well, It Happens

This Boeing 747 "Dreamlifter" landed at the wrong airfield in Wichita, Kan., this week. No damage was done, but there was concern about whether the runway was long enough to allow for a takeoff. After unloading fuel to lighten its load, the big jet was able to leave Thursday.

We're circling around for another look at one of this week's more talked-about stories: The Boeing 747 "Dreamlifter" cargo jet that touched down at a small municipal airport in Wichita, Kan., instead of its intended destination about 10 miles away, McConnell Air Force Base.

More specifically, we're wondering how the pilots made such a mistake. They ended up at Colonel James Jabara Airport, not the Air Force base. Fortunately, no damage was done and the jet was able to depart later.

An investigation is under way into what happened. Meanwhile, here's what we're finding.

The Wichita Eagle writes that:

"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. ...

"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 ... in close alignment and nearly parallel. That could cause a pilot to see Jabara before McConnell, he said."

According to The Christian Science Monitor:

"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."

Fox News adds that:

" 'It [even] happens in good weather when an airport is spotted miles away,' says Captain Tom Bunn, retired airline pilot and licensed therapist who founded SOAR, which helps people overcome their fear of flying .While he's not involved in the investigation of the Boeing incident, Bunn says typically with scenarios like this the first airport to come into view may not be the right airport.

" 'This is the same as you come from shopping and look for your car. Occasionally you approach a car and then realize, though it looks the same as yours, it isn't yours.' "

And Bloomberg News says it might have been a case of "expectancy error":

"Cockpit instruments and navigation devices should have made it clear to the pilots they were at the wrong airport, said David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach, Florida, campus.

"Sometimes pilots may be led astray by what is known as an 'expectancy error,' he said. In this case, both airports have runways running in the same direction.

" 'In their minds, they are thinking our airport has a north-south runway, and there is a north-south runway,' he said. 'So, therefore, that must be our airport.' "

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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