747 Lands at Too Short Runway: How Did it Happen?

** Boeing 747 Dreamlifter** Ed Turner

Now that the world knows the story of the Boeing 747 Dreamlifter that landed at the wrong Wichita-area airport on Wednesday night, everybody is asking the same question: how could it have happened? That is, how could a professional crew of a large cargo airliner get it so wrong?

The answer is, it's all too easy to do.

The flight was bound for Wichita McConnell Air Force Base and instead wound up at Jabara Field, located around 10 miles as the crow flies in the city of Wichita, which has to rank at the top of the charts for airports per square mile and per capita. Because of prevailing winds, nearly every runway at every airport in Wichita (and along the entire I-35 corridor for that matter) is situated in a north and south orientation. When the wind is from the north, you land toward the north, and vice versa.The runways at McConnell and Jabara are a single degree off from each other, a difference not noticeable to the naked eye.

From the air during the day paved runways, if you can find them at all, look like little strips of black against the background clutter of the landscape. At night, when the Dreamlifter was making its arrival into Wichita, you typically can't see the runway you're heading for at all. Instead, you pick it out by its lights. Every night-approved airport will have a beacon that flashes colored lights in a particular order to make it clear that you're located an airport on the ground ahead and not just a shopping mall with a brightly lit parking lot. At airports where civilians do their flying, the beacon flashes white and then green. At a military airport, the white does a double flash, which is remarkably noticeable. McConnell would have a double flashing beacon and Jabara, a single white flash.

Still, it's not easy to spot the right airport, especially at night, though there are cues that the crew would have to miss or ignore to get it wrong. In this case, they appear to have missed every one of them. That happens because of a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. The person who believes something (such as, they have visually located the right runway) tends to discard evidence to the contrary to that assumption (like the airport not being in the right place on the map) and use evidence that supports the belief (such as the airport being lined up in the proper orientation).

There are other visual cues the crew missed, as well. McConnell has parallel runways and Jabara a single strip. Three of the four runways at McConnell have advanced lighting systems, including something known as ALFS1, which is a lighted pathway leading to the runway end. Jabara has no such aids.

The landing for the 747 was to the south. ATC cleared the flight to land, and it was actually flying an instrument approach to McConnell and somehow wound up at Jabara, something that is not possible if the pilots had followed their instruments. Instead, it's likely that they visually acquired the airport and proceeded to do a visual approach despite having been approved to approach and land by using a GPS procedure.

It was a mistake that resulted in no injuries or loss of life, thank goodness, though it easily could have if the airport had been shorter or if the crew had failed to stop in time. The runway at Jabara is approximately 6,000 feet long. The runways at McConnell are each 12,000 feet long.

It's not the first time that a large airplane has landed at a too-small airport by mistake. Last year an Air Force C-17 landed at a small Florida strip, mistaking it for the much larger military field nearby and in the same orientation. In that incident, there was no loss of life and no damage to the airplane either. In the past three years alone, there have been at least six such incidents worldwide.

One thing is for sure. This will not be the last time it happens.

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