How can a plane land at the wrong airport?

Airport Runway

Airport Runway  (iStock)

At least they made it to Kansas.

On Wednesday, a massive Boeing 747 Dreamlifter cargo plane landed at the wrong airport.  The plane was supposed to fly to the McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas from New York JFK Airport. Instead, it landed at Jabara Airport, a different Wichita airport, in an apparent mistake.

The Wall Street Journal reported that even after landing, the recordings indicate that the crew was still disoriented about its location.

With technology-filled cockpits and modern-day navigational systems, how common is it for a plane to land at the wrong airport?

“It happens in good weather when an airport is spotted miles away,” says Captain Tom Bunn, retired airline pilot and licensed therapist who founded SOAR, which helps people overcome their fear of flying. While he’s not involved in the investigation of the Boeing incident, Bunn says typically with scenarios like this the first airport to come into view may not be the right airport.

“This is the same as you come from shopping and look for your car. Occasionally you approach a car and then realize, though it looks the same as yours, it isn't yours.”

Airline regulations require pilots to tune in to a radio at the intended airport, and to make sure that the radio signals match up with the airport you are heading toward. But according to Bunn, pilots sometimes don't follow standard procedure.

“Pilots are supposed to always question themselves,” he says.  “At the airline I used to fly at, Pan Am, pilots landed at the wrong airport on two separate occasions. In both cases, the captain was a supervisor."

In the case of the Dreamlifter, the pilots were communicating to the radio tower and there was no reported mechanical trouble.

According to air traffic control recordings, the aircraft was cleared for landing and the crew confirmed its clearance back to controllers at McConnell AFB.

After landing, the crew appeared to be still confused about where they were.

Controller: Giant 4241 heavy, confirm you know which airport you are at?

Pilot: Well, we think we have a pretty good pulse.

Controller: Giant 4241 heavy, roger, you…it appears you are at Jabara.

Pilot: Um, say again?

Controller: Giant 4241 heavy, we saw the plane on the radar and it appears you are at Jabara Airport.

Pilot: Say the name of it again?

Controller: Jabara.

Although a rare occurrence, this isn’t the first time a plane landed at the wrong airport. Last year, a passenger plane carrying 14 people landed at the wrong airport in West Virginia. And a military jet, last year, landed at tiny Tampa airport in a residential area.

But the giant Dreamlifter, when fully loaded, needs a runway 9,199 feet long to take off. The Jabara runway is 6,101 feet. After officials managed to turn around the Dreamlifter and determined it could take off on the shorter runway, the air freighter finally found its way to the correct Air Force base Thursday and landed without a hitch.