More on missing an airport (updated, on pilot fatigue)

Not sure if this makes me feel better or worse. I mentioned yesterday that I had once inadvertently been steering a small airplane toward Ellsworth Air Force Base, in South Dakota, rather than the Rapid City airport a couple of miles to its side, where I really intended to land. (Pilot-world detail: Airports in the US are officially known by a four-letter identification scheme, starting with K, rather than the three letters familiar from airline tickets. Thus LAX is KLAX for purposes of filing a flight plan; O'Hare is KORD; Logan is KBOS; and so on. The airport in Rapid City is KRAP. For the record, Ellsworth is KRCA.) The two airports are close together; their runways are laid out the same way; and so on. Via SkyVector.com, here's the FAA chart of KRCA, nearer the top, and KRAP below it, with green circles on each. I was way off the lower right side of the chart when trying to find the airport.

KRAP.jpg

Now I hear from several readers that five years ago a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis-St Paul (KMSP) did what I avoided -- went all the way and landed at Ellsworth, on a flight that was supposed to end at Rapid City. In my case I think that, even if a controller had not alerted me from ten minutes out that I needed to turn slightly to the left, I would have figured it out before I actually landed at an Air Force base. For one thing, the numbers at the end of the runway, which you can see from far away, would have been a clue. (The relevant runway would say 32 in big numbers at Rapid City, and 31 at Ellsworth. You know the number of the runway you're planning to land on, and if you see something different, it would give you pause.)  For whatever reason, this NWA flight made it all the way to a landing at Ellsworth.

Sorry for the passengers, who had to spend several hours on the ground before the five-minute flight to KRAP, and sorry for the pilots too.

UPDATE: This story in today's LA Times goes frontally at what I suspect will be the main question in the current "ooops, we missed Minneapolis" airline incident: whether, why, and how often airline pilots fall asleep in the cockpit. Obviously that was not the case with the five-year-old Ellsworth/KRAP incident discussed in this post. I expect this is just the beginning of broad discussion on pilot-fatigue issues coming out of the Minneapolis case. Thanks to reader D.L.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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