The Air Force has concluded its investigation into an incident last July when a C-17 Globemaster III landed at the wrong airport. And the reasons for the mistake, according to a report that resulted from the Air Force investigation and published by the Tampa Bay Tribune, went beyond simple human error.
Rather than touching down at its intended destination — the MacDill Air Force Base (KMCF) in Tampa, Florida — the large cargo airplane landed at the Peter O Knight (KTPF) general aviation airport. KTPF is located about five miles northeast of KMCF on a similar albeit significantly smaller peninsula. The runway heading would have indicated to the pilots that they were approaching the right airport as both airports have the same Runway 4-22. However, it is surprising that the pilots of the heavy jet didn’t notice the difference in the runway lengths. KTPF’s runway is only about one third of the length of MacDill’s.
The report showed no record of who was in charge of the airplane, nor does it indicate whether any disciplinary action was taken against the crew, which was a part of the 305th Air Mobility Wing based in New Jersey. It does, however, state that in the days prior to the incident the crew “flew into complex airfields, dealt with multiple mission changes and flew long mission legs with several stops each day.”
The mission for the botched flight, which originated in Rome, had been changed several times before the final assignment of MacDill came about one hour before the Globemaster departed on July 20. Several factors, including previous time zone changes, contributed to the pilot and copilot not operating at full mental capacity. The report stated that the pilot was acting at a 79 percent cognitive effectiveness and the copilot 89 percent. In comparison, a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level reduces the cognitive capacity to 70 percent.
A third crewmember, also a Globemaster pilot, assisted during the mid-air refueling — a requirement for the flight that lasted nearly 12 hours. It appears that the three crewmembers were the only people onboard the C-17 capable of flying the airplane. Fortunately the long flight ended in a safe landing at the 3,500-foot runway at KTPF, where the copilot was forced to apply “maximum effort braking” to get the airplane stopped in time. The final, short leg of the transoceanic flight was completed later the same day.