Two recent events in the US have led to commercial airliners namely B737-800's landing at the wrong airports.
Obviously this would be impossible during an ILS approach as the transponder at the end of the runway and the localizer for the glideslope decent wouldn't be triggered. We know however that ILS isn't available at all airports and even if it is, could be unavailable due to a number of reasons which then requires a visual approach.
During final descent and short final do flight crews watch the GPS or navigational equipment or do they tend to just follow the charts for the intended airport? I understand that some airports are close together and some runway thresholds are on similar bearings but surely this is totally avoidable! What degree of responsibility would approach control have on these errors too? They give clearance to proceed with the approach and ultimately landing clearance on short final. Surely they're accountable as much as the flight crew.
How could this happen in such a new aircraft with millions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated avionics and navigational equipment.
Andy (Western Australia)
Landing on wrong airports has very little to do with the type of planes they fly on but more likely to do with pilots' error.
A properly trained airline captain should have a thorough knowledge of the arrival airfield even before setting course. If he was unfamiliar with the runway, he would have studied, amongst others, the name of the runway, its surface condition, length, width, and taxiway leading to his parking bay.
In addition, to reduce errors amongst new pilots, most airlines would categorise the airfields that they regularly operate, into 3 groups, for example, Category A, B or C.
Cat ‘A’ aerodromes are generally easy airfields. Cat ‘B’ aerodromes would require some form of briefings and Cat ‘C’ are difficult aerodromes that may require a simulator check or a visit to the airfield before pilots are allowed to operate into them.
Most airlines would require their pilots to operate under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) even if the weather is good. This is because the safety of the plane is now placed under the control of the ATC (air traffic controllers). The plane would then be guided by radar to the correct runway.
When flying under IFR, the plane is properly set up with the correct runway and ILS on its computer. Also, a thorough briefing is done after it has been checked by both the pilots. If the pilots fail to do these, then they are prone to making mistakes.
However, if the pilot elects to declare that he could see the ground or fly under Visual Meteorological Condition (VMC), the responsibility now shifts to the captain. That is the danger as human can make mistakes and land on the wrong runway, especially to another similar airfield nearby.
On October 15, 2012, Sriwijaya Air grounded the captain and first officer after landing at wrong airport. The Boeing 737 was operating the service to Minangkabau airport in western Sumatra but the aircraft touched down instead at another airport, long closed to commercial flights and used only by the air force.
The two airports are located some 14 km apart and share a close resemblance. Both have a single runway located parallel and close to the coastline. The approach took place in daylight and good visibility.
On November 21 2013, a huge Boeing 747 cargo plane landed at a wrong airport in Wichita, USA instead of its intended destination about 10 miles away.
Many wondered how the pilots could have made such a mistake. According to the former chief pilot of flight operations at Boeing in Wichita, it was not unusual for pilots who aren't familiar with Wichita to make such mistake as the runways at both the airfields are in close alignment and nearly parallel. That could cause the pilot to see the wrong airfield first.
On January 12, 2014, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 bound for Branson Airport in Missouri, USA, also mistakenly landed at another wrong airfield in good weather.
In these 3 incidents, it happened in good weather and complacency may be one of the factors that contributed to the error of judgement. The instruments and machines are very good and the cliché, ’a bad carpenter cannot blame his tools’ may probably answer your question.
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Boeing Cargo Jet Lands At Wrong Wichita Airport
Sriwijaya Air landing at Domine Eduard Osok Airport
If you like what you read, more stories are found in my book LIFE IN THE SKIES (Preview here) and you can purchase a copy here. To check for any latest updates or postings, you can follow my Twitter at @CaptKHLim or Facebook here