Skip to main content

Land on the wrong runway? It's easy

By Robert Goyer
updated 1:59 PM EST, Tue January 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Goyer: 2 months after a jet landed on wrong runway, it happened again in Missouri
  • How does crew get it wrong? If you've been flying a long time, it's happened to you, he says
  • He says pilots turn off autopilot just before landing, don't always see it's wrong field
  • Goyer: It can be deadly. A saving grace of newer jets: Great brakes, reverse thrusters

Editor's note: Robert Goyer is the editor-in-chief of Flying magazine.

(CNN) -- After a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter landed at a small airport in Wichita a couple of months ago -- the pilot having mistaken the runway for a much longer and wider one in a similar orientation at a nearby military base -- I made the prediction that it wasn't the last time we'd see such a blunder.

I just didn't think it would happen again so soon.

But on Sunday, a Southwest 737 crew mistook a runway at a small local airport in Hollister, Missouri, for the much larger runway at nearby, Branson Airport, and landed at the small strip by mistake. To make matters more hair-raising, the 737 touched down on a relatively short runway even for light planes, never mind for airliners. To their credit, the crew members of the Boeing jet got it stopped short of the end of the runway, where an embankment separated it from U.S. Highway 65, without doing any damage to passengers or the plane.

Robert Goyer
Robert Goyer

The question arises: "How did a professionally trained crew manage to screw up so badly?" The answer is it's very easy to do. Take the accidental landing of a C-17 at a small Florida airport in 2012, for example. The crew's intended airport was MacDill Air Force Base, but it instead touched down the giant jet on the much, much shorter, 100-foot-wide runway a few miles away. Military personnel had to work for hours after the mix-up to lighten the airplane's load so it could take off from the short strip.

The fact is that any pilot with a lot of experience who claims to have never at least lined up to land at a runway other than the intended one is probably fibbing. I've been flying everything from light propeller planes to big jets for more than 30 years, and I've aimed for the wrong runway three times and a really big taxiway on a different occasion.

The problem is there are two distinct modes of operating an airplane, by reference to the instruments and by visual reference. With very, very few exceptions, every flight ends with the pilot turning off the autopilot (if it was engaged), taking physical command of the plane through the flight and power controls, "acquiring" the runway visually and landing. Sometimes that process happens in the last 10 seconds of a flight, sometimes in the last five minutes.

Plane lands at wrong airport
Plane lands at wrong airport
Plane lands at wrong airport

It's that visual acquisition of the landing runway that's the trap. When pilots see what they believe is the right runway, they're going to land there unless some big alarm goes off in their head. It's simply human nature, and pilots are humans. They proceed to disregard the instruments and simply "hand fly" the airplane to a landing, that is if the co-pilot doesn't alert them to the flub.

All the while the navigation instruments "know" the plane is headed to the wrong airport, but the pilots don't pay attention because in their mind they've already found the right runway, so why even bother to look at the instruments?

Why don't more of these wrong airport episodes end in disaster? It's luck that most of them don't. Tragically, there are exceptions. In 2006, a regional jet took off from the wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky. The runway was too short and the jet crashed, killing 49 people in the process.

Landing at the wrong airport or choosing the wrong runway can be catastrophic.

Had the 747 in Wichita tried landing on a runway as short as the one the much smaller 737 touched down on over the weekend, I don't think it could have stopped in time to avoid going off the end and at the very least wrecking the airplane. Modern airliners have two things going for them — great brakes and powerful reverse thrusters — and in the case of both the 737 and the 747 before it, it was a good thing they did. I wasn't there to witness either event, but I'd be shocked if the smell of superheated brake pads wasn't in the air.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Goyer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT