February 10

Aviation safety: Wrong airport, no happy landing

On at least 150 flights, the pilots either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and pulled up.

By Joan Lowy
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Do you know the way to San Jose? Quite a few airline pilots apparently don’t.

click image to enlarge

Southwest Airlines Flight 4013 sits at the M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Hollister, Mo., on Jan. 13. On at least 150 flights, U.S. commercial air carriers have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time.

Valerie Mosley/Springfield News-Leader

On at least 150 flights, including one involving a Southwest Airlines jet last month in Missouri and a jumbo cargo plane last fall in Kansas, U.S. commercial air carriers have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time, according to a search by The Associated Press of government safety databases and media reports since the early 1990s.

A particular trouble spot is San Jose, Calif. The list of landing mistakes includes six reports of pilots preparing to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport, when they meant to go to Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 10 miles to the southeast. The airports are south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley.

“This event occurs several times every winter in bad weather when we work on Runway 12,” a San Jose airport tower controller said in a November 2012 report describing how an airliner headed for Moffett after being cleared to land at San Jose. A controller at a different facility who noticed the impending landing on radar warned his colleagues with a telephone hotline that piped his voice directly into the San Jose tower’s loudspeakers. The plane was waved off in time.

RUNWAY LIGHTS DECEPTIVE

In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to guide the plane based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn’t match what they were seeing out their windows – a runway straight ahead.

“You’ve got these runway lights, and you are looking at them, and they’re saying: ‘Come to me, come to me. I will let you land.’ They’re like the sirens of the ocean,” said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.

Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn’t include every event. But the accounts that are available paint a picture of repeated close calls, especially in parts of the country where airports are situated close together with runways similarly angled, including Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and several airports in South Florida.

‘THIS HAPPENS RATHER FREQUENTLY’

In a report filed last July, an airline captain described how his MD-80 was lined up to land at what he thought was San Antonio International Airport when a rider in the cockpit’s jump seat “shouted out that we were headed for Lackland Air Force Base.” The first officer, who was flying the plane, quickly aborted the landing and circled around to line up for the correct airport. The captain later thanked the cockpit passenger and phoned the San Antonio tower. “They did not seem too concerned,” he reported, “and said this happens rather frequently there.”

Continental Airlines’ regional carriers flying from Houston to Lake Charles Regional Airport on the Louisiana Gulf Coast have at least three times mistakenly landed at the smaller, nearby Southland Executive field. Both airports have runways painted with the numbers 15 and 33 to reflect their compass headings. Runways are angled based on prevailing winds.

(Continued on page 2)

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