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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT