Landing at the Wrong Airport: Sigh

America is covered with small airfields. Usually that's a plus. But not always.

Many people have sent me links about the unfortunate news of a giant cargo airplane, a modified 747 known as a "Dreamlifter," landing at a smaller airport in Kansas rather than at its intended destination, McConnell Air Force Base. 

How could this happen? Of course it shouldn't happen -- airports have distinct GPS locations and "airport identifiers," all but the smallest ones have instrument-approach frequencies that you dial in (even in good weather) to be sure you're lined up with the right runways, you're supposed to be constantly looking for landmarks, and so on. But if it were to happen, you could sort of understand in a case like this, where there are three airports with similar orientation lined up one after another on the Kansas plain. Via Google Earth, here is how it might look if, like this plane, you were headed in from the north:

The airport at the top of this view is McConnell Air Force Base, where the plane thought it was headed. The one in the middle Beech airport, whose runway is laid out in the same direction. At the bottom is Jabara airport, also with a similar layout, where the plane actually touched down -- and, fortunately, managed to take off again the next day for the minutes-long flight to McConnell.

For previous cases of adjoining, similar-looking airports leading pilots astray, see accounts from South Dakota and from Florida

Main reason to mention the story, apart from the interesting videos in some of those older, linked posts? The air-traffic control tape of the mistaken landing and its aftermath truly is fascinating. We all know about the pilot sangfroid that captured in the beginning of The Right Stuff. "You may feel a tiny bit of bumpiness here," the Yeager/Tom Cruise-accent-aspirant pilot might say as the plane is tossed up and down through a thunderstorm. Bear that in mind as you hear flight crew and controllers sounding nonchalant about what they all recognize, but are not mentioning, as a big embarrassment.

In case you were wondering, here is how the three airports in question look on an FAA "VFR Sectional" chart. Jabara (actual landing site) at the top, Beech in the middle, McConnell (intended destination) at the bottom.

To keep things in perspective: no one was hurt, the plane managed to take off again, and the only thing damaged was pride. May all aviation misjudgments have effects this benign. 

On the airport theme, something new has come to PEK, the Beijing International Airport where I sit at the moment, since my last visit here. There's free wifi: Great! But to get your code, you have to put your passport into a scanning machine that reads and records your coordinates before issuing you a wifi code. I guess there are still tricks for the NSA to learn.

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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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