Aviation News: Missing the Airport in South Dakota, Making the Flight in Hawaii

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Google Earth screenshot of two airports outside Rapid City, South Dakota. The red arrow shows the approach to the one you don’t want to land at unless you’re flying an Air Force plane. That is Ellsworth Air Force Base. The green arrow shows the path to Rapid City’s civilian airport, known in aviation lingo as KRAP. (In official terminology, airports in the U.S. carry a K- prefix, as in KLAX or KJFK.) A Delta plane is the latest to mix the two up.

1) Heading for KRAP, landing at KRCA. Way back in 2009, when a Northwest Airlines flight “overshot” its destination (perhaps because the pilots were asleep), I did an item on the general topic of mixing-up airports. I mentioned then that two of the most-likely to be confused were outside Rapid City, South Dakota.

One was the “normal,” civilian Rapid City Regional Airport, known as KRAP in international aviation terminology. (You put a K- before airport abbreviations in the United States, CY- or CZ- for Canada, EG- for the UK, etc.). The other was the nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, or KRCA. As you can see from the Google Earth screenshot above, they’re laid out similarly, and if you’re approaching from the east, the much larger Ellsworth runway is the one you’ll see first.

How do I know this? As I mentioned at the time:

Once when I was flying westward toward the Rapid City airport in South Dakota, I found myself lining up 25 miles away instead with the much bigger runway of Ellsworth Air Force Base nearby. I must not have been the first one to do so, because the controller said in a routine way, "What you're probably heading for is Ellsworth. You want to turn your head ten degrees to the left and look for a little airport that's closer. That's where you want to go."

This was embarrassing enough, and it was just my wife and me, not a bunch of paying passengers…. I was looking from a slant, into a setting sun, from a relatively low altitude, way off in the distance. It's a miracle I saw either of them!

Over the weekend, the inevitable happened, and an Airbus 320 operated by Delta that was bound for Rapid City landed at Ellsworth instead. All I can say is, I understand the situation, and I’m sorry if the controller who was so proactively helpful to me didn’t happen to be on duty this weekend.

For more on other easily-mixed-up airports, in Florida, see this.


2) On to Hilo. I mentioned last week that 18-year-old Lachlan “Lachie” Smart, of Australia, was trying to set a world record as the youngest-ever pilot to fly solo around the world. He is making the attempt in a single-engine Cirrus SR-22, which is the same sort of airplane Deb and I have been flying around the United States.

Recording-setting attempts are by definition (and by history) perilous. But so far so good for Lachlan Smart. Over the weekend he completed another long trans-Pacific leg, landing in Hilo, Hawaii. Continued good luck to him.