How can a plane land at the wrong airport?

The Aviation Hall of Shame

The Boeing Dreamlifter incident was only one example of landing at the wrong airfield. Although rare, it happens more often than you might think.

On Jan. 12, 2014, a Southwest Airlines flight took off from Chicago's Midway International Airport and landed at Taney County's M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Missouri. The plane was supposed to touch down at Branson Airport in southwest Missouri, a facility located 8.6 miles (13.8 kilometers) away [source: Martin]. The National Transportation Safety Board opened an investigation the following day. Passengers and crew were all fine, even with the short runway, thanks to some heavy braking.

In July 2012, a huge military C-17 cargo plane scheduled to arrive at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla., instead put in at Peter O. Knight Airport, a small suburban field. Again, the mistake involved two neighboring airfields bearing similar runway configurations and, again, fears were voiced about possible runway damage caused by the beefy craft. Base officials subsequently implemented new landing procedures [sources: Hegeman and Freed; Mutzabaugh].

The previous September, a Continental Connection flight bound for Lake Charles Regional Airport in Louisiana landed instead at nearby Southland Field, a strip more accustomed to handling crop dusters than commercial flights. Similar incidents occurred at least twice there in the 1990s, including another Continental Express flight in 1996. That crew attributed the mistake to Southland Field's similar compass heading and recently installed bright lights, and added that the strip they landed on bore the same number as their assigned Lake Charles runway [sources: Associated Press; Mutzabaugh; Sulphur Daily News].

Such incidents occur all around the globe. In April 2009, a TAAG Angola Airlines flight bound for Zambia's Lusaka International Airport landed instead at an airfield used by the Zambian air force. The pilot recognized his mistake but landed anyway to avoid frightening the passengers with a sudden pull-up [source: Demerjian].

But you don't have to work for one of the least-safe airlines in the world to commit such a gaffe. In April 2009, a Turkish Airlines jet headed for Tbilisi, Georgia, instead put in at a military base 10 miles (16 kilometers) away [source: Demerjian].

Indeed, 10 miles seems to be a magic number in these cases. Col. Jabara Airport is situated roughly that distance from McConnell Air Force Base; MacDill lies about 5 miles (8 kilometers) off the end of Peter O. Knight's runway; Lake Charles Regional is located about 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) east of Southland [sources: Mutzabaugh; Smith].

There are exceptions, of course. Back in November 2007, the plane carrying then-presidential candidate Barack Obama landed in Des Moines, Iowa -- 100 miles (161 kilometers) from its scheduled stop in Cedar Rapids [source: Associated Press]. Maybe the pilot thought he'd like to be a few months early for the Iowa caucuses.

Author's Note: How can a plane land at the wrong airport?

I sometimes think that we are surprised by stories like these only because we vastly overestimate the people and machines with which we entrust out lives. Each year, roughly 4,000 American patients are left with surgical souvenirs on the wrong side of their sutures -- usually sponges, but occasionally clamps, scalpels or scissors [source: O'Connor]. Are surgical staffs incompetent? Far from it; but, like pilots, they perform a complex and occasionally chaotic task, often while fatigued.

While it might be easier in the short term to imagine ourselves safe in the hands of experts, maybe from time to time we should just face the uncomfortable fact that we are rolling the dice. And why not? The odds are generally in our favor, even if today's surgeon or pilot is yesterday's college roommate -- you know, the one who drank a lot and never studied ...

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