Boeing 747 Dreamlifter

The Boeing 747 Dreamlifter hangs out at Paine Field Airport in Washington. See that aircraft flying above? That should give you an idea of just how massive a Dreamlifter is. Now imagine that giant landing unexpectedly on a modest runway.

© Jason Redmond/Reuters/Corbis

"Uh, ladies and gentlemen, this is the flight deck welcoming you into Wichita. On behalf of the crew, we'd like to thank you for choosing Airborne Airways, where your destination is always up in the air.

"You may now feel free to power up your electronic devices. Um ... in fact, if, uh, any of you have GPS, we'd like you to join us in a little game. A free bag of peanuts for the first passenger to tell us, uh, which airport we're at ... "

It might sound ridiculous, particularly in the age of GPS satellites, but airplanes do occasionally land at the wrong airport. When they do, the consequences can include not only red-faced pilots, but also inconvenienced passengers, endangered planes and damaged airfields.

In November 2013, a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter touched down at Col. James Jabara Airport in Wichita, Kan. Unfortunately for the Atlas Air crew and for Boeing's production schedule, it was supposed to land at McConnell Air Force Base about 10 miles (16 kilometers) to the southwest, not at a small, general aviation field more accustomed to private planes and small business jets [source: Ostrower].

The mix-up caused no immediate harm, but it put the plane in a bit of a pickle. A Dreamlifter is a bloated tick of an aircraft -- a massive 747-400 modified with 65,000 cubic feet (1,840 cubic meters) of cargo space to haul 787 Dreamliner parts from global suppliers to assembly line locations. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 803,000 pounds (364,000 kilograms). With its 211.5-foot (64.4-meter) wingspan, it spreads more than double the width of the runway at Col. Jabara. Several newspapers reported concerns that the 6,100-foot (1,860-meter) runway was too short for the massive plane to take off from [sources: Boeing; KWCH; Mutzabaugh].

Ultimately, the plane shed all unnecessary fuel and took off using only 4,500 feet (1,372 meters) of runway. The city shut down nearby roads as a precaution against jet blast, but rubberneckers still managed to cause a few fender-benders -- the only damage caused by the incident, aside from a few broken runway lights and some wounded pride [sources: City of Wichita; KWCH; LeBeau].

Getting the runway wrong doesn't always end so well, however. In 2006, a Continental Boeing 757 landed on part of a Newark Liberty International Airport taxiway, the slow-traffic path airplanes take to and from gates. No one was injured, and no damage to the plane was reported. Also in 2006, a Comair regional jet in Lexington, Ky., crashed and burst into flames after running out of room on the wrong runway. Forty-nine people died, with only the first officer surviving [sources: Alfano, Demerjian].

In the last decade, at least half a dozen such incidents have occurred in the United States alone, thanks to weather, flight crew errors or blunders by air traffic control. To understand why, we need to look at how pilots land and at how airports are laid out.