It was bizarre, and a little humorous, last November when an Atlas Air 747 Dreamliner carrying cargo from New York City’s JFK International Airport to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita missed the mark — by about 10 miles — and landed instead at Col. James Jabara Airport.
Jabara is a general aviation facility that operates without a control tower. It is unaccustomed to landings by 747s — and the attention that accompanied the pilot’s highly publicized mistake. Nevertheless, there was little harm done other than the embarrassment such a mistake causes.
That incident might be forgotten but for a similar occurrence Sunday in Missouri. This one involved a passenger jet — a Southwest Airlines 737 carrying 124 passengers — that landed at a small airport in Taney County, Mo., instead of Branson, its scheduled destination. Happily, the two airports were close enough that hastily arranged buses minimized passengers’ inconvenience.
Less happily, Sunday’s errant landing involved an uncomfortable brush with disaster. The runway was half as long as Branson’s, which forced pilots to take extreme measures to keep the aircraft from tumbling off the end and possibly down an embankment to a U.S. highway.
If these two incidents aren’t a trend in the making, it’s because errant landings already occur several times a year at airports the world over. If they attract little attention, it’s almost certainly because people aren’t killed or injured. That, however, shouldn’t slow federal investigators from a thorough investigation into the Southwest Airlines incident. Among questions experts ought to be asking are how well the airplane’s equipment worked, whether the crew relied too heavily on it and whether other aspects of training need to be improved.
Shortly after the incident in Wichita, a retired pilot, speaking with Fox News, likened misidentifying an airport to a consumer leaving a large shopping mall and inadvertently walking up to a car that looks like his but isn’t.
Most folks can identify with that sort of mistake. And most us, while behind the wheel, have taken a wrong turn. That can be embarrassing, even maddening if we don’t realize our mistake quickly.
But the stakes don’t approach those of an airliner landing at the wrong runway. What’s more, understanding how errant landings can occur doesn’t make them any more excusable.