FAAST Federal Aviation Administration Safety Team
Avoid location shock
Heather McNevin, CFI, Air Traffic Controller, NAFI Master Aviation Educator
Have you ever landed at the wrong airport? Don’t worry, you are not alone. You may think this an impossible mistake given today’s technology but I assure you, people do it every year. Culprits range from student pilots to ATPs. In fact, a highly experienced flight crew for a major carrier just had this issue. In some locations, it happens, or nearly happens, several times a month!
Often, these high occurrence areas will broadcast an advisory on the ATIS to warn pilots. Many times this occurs when a civilian airport is in close proximity to a military air base. Most of these types of errors occurred in VMC or MVMC with another airport within 20 nm of the intended airport. Due to prevailing winds and their effect on airport design, many airports have similar runway configurations.
Aside from being highly embarrassing, there are safety implications involved with landing at an airport other than your intended destination. For example, runway length is likely to be other than expected and may end in a runway excursion. Also, there may be NOTAMs you haven’t received, such as runway closures, that may catch you by surprise. You also may have dangerous traffic situations, as you will likely not be on the appropriate frequency for the airport you are heading towards.
There are several techniques you can use to avoid this situation. First, keep in mind the conditions for which this situation typically occurs so you can have heightened awareness in those circumstances. Plan your arrival so you know how the airport should look as you approach it. Use an airport diagram and visualize what you will see and where it will be as you approach the airport (example: 2 rows of hangers will be closest to me, then the ramp, then the runway will appear perpendicular to me). As humans, we possess a fascinating ability to talk ourselves into accepting only information that confirms our point of view and disregard other information. If you are on final and notice B52s on the ramp at a GA airport or you see the hangars on the opposite side of the runway from where you expected them, exercise caution. Use multiple, independent sources of navigation to confirm your position (GPS, pilotage, VOR, NDB, etc). Use flight following. Know what the runway should look like. You should be able to eyeball the difference between a 4,000 foot runway and a 10,000 foot runway. Despite there being obvious visual cues as to the shape and length of the runway, in many examples studied, runways at the mistaken arrival airports were several thousand feet shorter than expected and sometimes not within performance specs for safe arrival. Know what kind of lighting to expect to see. If you are expecting a VASI and see a PAPI, don’t just think “hey great, they upgraded for me!”