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.
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.