Skip to main content

Land on the wrong runway? It's easy

By Robert Goyer
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT