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Pilots often head to wrong airports, reports show

WASHINGTON (AP) - Do you know the way to San Jose? Quite a few airline pilots apparently don't.

On at least 150 flights, including one involving a Southwest Airlines jet last month in Missouri and a jumbo cargo plane last fall in Kansas, U.S. commercial air carriers have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time, according to a search by The Associated Press of government safety databases and media reports since the early 1990s.

A particular trouble spot is San Jose, Calif. The list of landing mistakes includes six reports of pilots preparing to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport, when they meant to go to Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 10 miles to the southeast. The airports are south of San Francisco in California's Silicon Valley.

"This event occurs several times every winter in bad weather when we work on Runway 12," a San Jose airport tower controller said in a November 2012 report describing how an airliner headed for Moffett after being cleared to land at San Jose. A controller at a different facility who noticed the impending landing on radar warned his colleagues with a telephone hotline that piped his voice directly into the San Jose tower's loudspeakers. The plane was waved off in time.

In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to guide the plane based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn't match what they were seeing out their windows - a runway straight ahead.

"You've got these runway lights, and you are looking at them, and they're saying: 'Come to me, come to me. I will let you land.' They're like the sirens of the ocean," said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.

Using NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn't include every event. Many are not disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren't publicly available. FAA officials turned down a request by The Associated Press for access to those records, saying some may include information on possible violations of safety regulations by pilots and might be used in an enforcement action.

NASA, on the other hand, scrubs its reports of identifying information to protect confidentiality, including names of pilots, controllers and airlines. While the database is operated by the space agency, it is paid for by the FAA and its budget has been frozen since 1997, said database director Linda Connell. As a result, fewer incident reports are being entered even though the volume of reports has soared, she said.

The accounts that are available paint a picture of repeated close calls, especially in parts of the country where airports are situated close together with runways similarly angled, including Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and several airports in South Florida.

In a report filed last July, for example, an airline captain described how his MD-80 was lined up to land at what he thought was San Antonio International Airport when a rider in the cockpit's jump seat "shouted out that we were headed for Lackland Air Force Base." The first officer, who was flying the plane, quickly aborted the landing and circled around to line up for the correct airport. The captain later thanked the cockpit passenger and phoned the San Antonio tower. "They did not seem too concerned," he reported, "and said this happens rather frequently there."

Continental Airlines' regional carriers flying from Houston to Lake Charles Regional Airport on the Louisiana Gulf Coast have at least three times mistakenly landed at the smaller, nearby Southland Executive field. Both airports have runways painted with the numbers 15 and 33 to reflect their compass headings. Runways are angled based on prevailing winds.

The recent wrong airport landings by a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 in Missouri and an Atlas Air Boeing 747 freighter in Kansas have heightened safety concerns. The Southwest pilots stopped just short of a ravine at the end of the short runway in Hollister, Mo., when they meant to land on a runway twice as long at the nearby Branson airport. Of the 35 documented wrong landings, 23 occurred at airports with shorter runways. The runways were longer in three cases, they were the same length in two and the wrong airport wasn't identified or its runway length was unavailable in seven.

FAA officials emphasized that cases of wrong airport landings are rare. There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP's tally. None has resulted in death or injury.

"The FAA reviews reported wrong-airport incidents to determine whether steps such as airfield lighting adjustments may reduce pilot confusion," the agency said in a statement.

But John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety expert, says the FAA and the NTSB should be concerned. Air crashes are nearly always the result of a string of safety lapses rather than a single mistake, he noted. Attempts to land at wrong airports represent "another step up the ladder toward a riskier operation," he said.

Runway condition is also a worry when a plane makes a mistaken approach. When an air traffic controller clears a plane to land on a specific runway, "you know you pretty much have a clear shot at a couple of miles of smooth concrete," said Rory Kay, a training captain at a major airline. "If you choose to land somewhere else, then all bets are off. There could be a bloody big hole in the middle of the runway. There could be a barrier across it. There could be vehicles working on it."

In some reports, pilots said they were saved from making a wrong airport landing by an alert controller. That was the case for an MD-80 captain who nearly landed his mid-sized airliner at Page Field, a small airport in Fort Myers, Fla., used mainly by private pilots, instead of the much larger Southwest Florida International Airport nearby. A controller caught the mistake in time and suggested the captain explain the detour by telling passengers the flight was "touring downtown" Fort Myers.

"I was pretty shaken as to what could have happened and was very glad to have an understanding, helpful (controller)," the captain said. "They (controllers) said there would be no problem with (the FAA) and that this was a common occurrence."

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rjackson2a February 10 2014 at 9:26 PM

The media loves to hype up these stories. This one speaks of 150 incidents spread over 20 years. That is an average of 7.5 incidents per year. There are an average of 30,000 domestic flights in US airspace daily. That is 10,950,000 flights per year. Divide that by the 7.5 incidents and you end up with a chance per flight of 1 in 1,460,000. The odds of being struck by lightening are 1 in 280,000. So you are six times more likely to be struck by lightening than involved in one of these incidents.

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LJBEAR February 10 2014 at 11:09 PM

If this happens it is the fault of the faa allowing uncertified pilots to fly commercial air craft. when the aitcraft is within 200 miles of the destination they are turned over to the destination air field from the previous air traffic controller and given flight instructions from the destination which is set up prior to takeoff. If the pilot does not understand english he may go to another airfield because of his non communication. Most flights this day and age are on GPS.

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Linda Dorfmont February 10 2014 at 5:06 PM

It would not cost that much to paint in reflective paint the designation of the airport along with the runway.


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patriot1too February 10 2014 at 5:03 PM

We prefer to always fly on AirTran Airlines. We have never ever had any problem at all and love them.

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richjordan February 10 2014 at 4:49 PM

This type of incident reflects a degree of negligence, primarily by the pilot, but the controllers, as well. It's intuitively obvious that decreased day light, at anytime, but, in particular, during winter, would only increase the likelyhood of this type of mistake.

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LL February 10 2014 at 4:18 PM

The thing about modern flights is that they are so "mundane" (to the pilots, especially) and so much so that the extra vigilence that should be practiced on all flights, simply slips away - so perhaps a once monthly mandatory meeting for all licensed pilots should be in order; and this to feature all of the near "somethings" and things that could have, or have gone wrong - for that bit of a wake-up call, to those men and women who hold so many lives in the palm of their hand, on EVERY flight ?

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alstenzel February 10 2014 at 4:07 PM

It happens. I landed on the taxiway between runways 12L AND 12R at Lambert International back when I was building hours for my Private Pilot license. The controller probably did me a favor because he didn't give me a phone number to call and cleared me back to the parking ramp.

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fsaufleyudt February 10 2014 at 3:54 PM

They're flying to the wrong airports because they're flying with their head up their ass.

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Alan Cohn February 10 2014 at 3:35 PM

There have been some real classics errors over the years. Northwest DC-10 who took off from someplace up north in the 1990s bound for Frankfurt, to land on Runway 25 Left. Sure enough, landed on runway 25 Left, in BRUSSELS, 200 hundred miles away. The FAA Inspector said that mess hadn't been resolved when he flew on my DC-8 in 1998. Delta landed on the parallel taxiway at Atlanta, returning from Brazil. Delta landed at McDill AFB, 7 miles south of Tampa International. The basic lesson is to KNOW the layout of the airport before making the approach. Most of the classic errors are in visual conditions (VMC), and the pilots not looking at their instruments. I almost learned the hard way in 1968, when the Philly Navy Yark had just closed their runways. The young pilots are NOT getting these lessons passed along to them by the old hats.

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Dan February 10 2014 at 3:33 PM

Two more commonly confused airports: Biggs Army Airfiled for El Paso Intl. And Hawthorne for LAX. Many years ago, a 747 pilot saw Hawthorne first and started to drop in to land (lined up with Rwy 25L @ LAX), but immediately realized the runway was short, and no other runways (LAX has 4), pulled up and continued to LAX. Biggs however, looks just like ELP, same runway heading, very long runway, and is the first one you see in the dark of night. If you didn't know it was there (first trip to ELP?) you'd want to try to land there! I've been in the jumpseat of a 727 that almost landed there until I woke up and warned the Captain. (Long day, I wasn't flying the plane, just commuting home!) -- Retired 747 Captain.

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rpthe1 February 10 2014 at 6:23 PM

Kind of hard to understand with having to get in line with the other plans going into LAX

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mrclecman February 10 2014 at 3:22 PM

Been flying GA for about 20 years and always wondered how this could happen with all of the technology available in sophisticated aircraft...then one day I did it myself. Entered a flight plan into a GPS to an airport I had never been to before. the letters H & K look similar on a digital display if your not paying close attention, so of course I frogged the two letters and little did I know there were 2 airports in close proximity to one another with runways configured in the same direction. I landed safely, taxied to the ramp and realized what I had just done, with my tail between my legs I turned around and took back off...my wife still never lets me forget as she was sitting in the right seat.

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