Damn, I landed at the wrong airport!

In November 2013, a modified Boeing 747 Dreamlifter landed at the wrong airport in Kansas. The two-person crew touched down 8 miles north of its intended destination on a shorter runway than planned. While embarrassing for the crew, intriguing to the public, it is conceivable for those who have been there (or almost have been there). The next day, a new crew took off the massive jet safely. The FAA will investigate the incident and we all will have the opportunity to learn from the facts.

A story like this is rare in the professional pilot world. The stick_figure_plane_150_wht_6648constant crosscheck of air traffic control procedures, onboard computers, radio transmissions, visual clues and basic navigation skills normally work in a positive manner to help pilots avoid these types of mistakes.

On the other hand, in the United States there are a total of 19,786 landing facilities. So, there are a lot of places to land smaller airplanes, and given that airport runways are laid out to take advantage of local prevailing winds, many airports look similar. Just like the sign at the baggage claim carousel that states Many Bags Look Alike, pilots can be lured into making a wrong choice.

STUDENT PILOT STUNT

Such was the case early in my career as a student pilot on my long solo cross-country flight. My flight plan had two scheduled stops and then a landing back where I began. I landed at my first destination without incident, taxied up to the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) and then shut down my engine. After properly chocking my venerable Cessna 150 and doing a post flight inspection, I found someone to verify that I had actually landed there and had them endorse my paperwork. After checking the weather, milling around for a while in the pilot’s lounge and gawking at some of the airplanes, I went back out to the ramp. I did the pre-flight, cranked up the mighty Continental O-200 engine and departed the controlled field for my next destination, an uncontrolled field, where I planned to refuel for the third and final leg back home.

The destination was Aeroflex-Andover a name that I will never forget. I don’t remember much about that second leg of the cross-country until after landing. I taxied up to the ramp, chocked the airplane, then sauntered into a small building I thought was the FBO and asked for a fill-up. A tall, lanky gentleman in overhauls looked down at me and politely told me that they did not have any fuel there. If Homer Simpson would have been born at that time, there would be a thousand DOH’s echoing through the New Jersey countryside!  What, how could this be?  I told the man that they had fuel listed in the airport directory! Again, he just looked at me and finally, the “Clue Bird” landed on my shoulder. The realization that I was at the wrong airport hit me. I remember thinking that my student pilot career was going to be shortened right then and there.

WHAT HAPPENED?

While I cannot remember analyzing why and how I got there, I do remember frantically assessing how to get to Aeroflex-Andover. I glanced at my sectional chart, but don’t remember actually measuring a course or distance to get to where I needed to be, but the kind gentleman said it was just a short distance away. Just takeoff and turn right, you will see it beyond the trees about two miles away – you can’t miss it.” Okay, that seemed to be about right. Fuel quantity, another important concern popped into my mind. I went back to the plane, and looked at the non-linear fuel gage markings (which always seemed to be a mystery to me) with a sharper eye. I knew it was damn low. I asked for a ladder, climbed up and checked the tanks visually with a flashlight. I could see fuel. I reasoned that if I took off, headed directly to the airport, could find the runway and landed there that all would be well.

Today, with nearly 40 years of flying experience, remembering this incident sends shivers up my spine and ranks as one of the most stupid things I ever did. I took off, found the right airport (although it was not as easy as I was led to believe), landed, dusted off my ego, and refueled. I do remember being aware of the time I wasted, so I hustled and got the plane back into the air, now fully fueled and headed on the final leg. Landing back at my home airport was uneventful. Upon taxiing up to the parking spot, I did get a glimpse of my instructor standing outside the FBO with his arms crossed – I didn’t think I was that late!

I do remember confessing my sin. Next, I endured a lengthy debriefing from my instructor, normally a calm, patient man. After a lecture on navigation, proper flight planning and procedures, he asked me for the fuel receipt. The Cessna 150 fuel capacity was 26 gallons. I won’t say how much fuel was on the fuel receipt, but suffice it to say that my instructor went into a rant on fuel starvation that rivaled Linda Blair’s exorcism performance.

WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?

A lack of experience combined with complacency resulted in my failure to use basic dead reckoning (time and heading) concepts, apply map reading skills and interpret radio navigational aids. My intention was to land on Aeroflex-Andover’s Runway 21 approaching from the north. Note the water to the north, and the road to the east of the airport.

Aeroflex-Andover

About a mile and a half northwest of Aeroflex-Andover was (at that time) Newton Airport with a Runway 6-24 configuration (I landed on Runway 24). Note the water to the north and the road to the east of the airport as well. Newton Airport has since been closed as depicted by the closed runway markings.

NewtonAirport

Looking at a bigger picture, note both airports Aeroflex-Andover and Newton Airport below. Drifting off my course a little bit at a time and talking myself into following the wrong landmarks, I was lulled into believing what I saw was correct.

BothAirports

USE: CLOCK to MAP to GROUND

Using basic navigation principles can back up any electronic guidance, even in the GPS era. Elapsed time, speed and heading are the three key ingredients for any navigational problem. How long have I held the heading? How fast am I going? And, in what direction have I traveled? That is it!  Later, as I became an instructor, I religiously taught “CLOCK to MAP to GROUND” in visual navigation flight lessons. A properly prepared map (sectional chart) will have a course plotted with tick marks for time. In the air, the student must first look at the CLOCK (to note elapsed time), then reference the planned spot on the MAP (to see where they should be), then look at the GROUND to confirm. Looking at the GROUND first, then looking at the MAP to find something that looks “right” can lead you to a wrong interpretation, and eventually to strange and unwanted places.

ALWAYS: CROSSCHECK, CROSSCHECK, CROSSCHECK

No matter what electronic gadgets are in the cockpit, they can always malfunction and the programming is prone to human error as well. If you are flying with another pilot, use crew resource management and crosscheck there. If you are flying with a passenger, give them an appropriate task to help you crosscheck. And finally, when you have the runway in sight, confirm that the runway number painted on the runway is the right number. That definitely would have saved me on my cross-country flight, and it might have alerted the Dreamlifter crew to go-around and sort it out!

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