April 1, 2006
By Alton K. Marsh
Doctors at Wright State University in Dayton call it "in-flight geographic disorientation," or IGD. It means you get lost, land at the wrong airport, but at least can say, "I got down (IGD)." The better-publicized cases of landing at the wrong airport involve airlines, and you'll find 70 examples from over the years by following the Internet link at the end of this article. Today — one would think — GPS-equipped airplanes never land at the wrong airport. Or at least, if they do, it's rare.
Not so. Out of 50 of recent member e-mails received for this article, 22 concerned getting lost despite GPS, and sometimes because of it. Two aircraft were equipped with glass cockpits.
Raymond Roels, AOPA 3928403, of Fort Worth, Texas, summed up the problem best: "I am convinced that with all our gadgets available now, there are more 'oops, wrong airport' events than ever before. Pilots, beware." His own example occurred when he was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Germany two years ago. He entered a flight plan to Cologne, Germany, but ended up in the Netherlands. "Recheck all entered data in a well-structured way and, most important, not immediately after entering it because it has been proven that you will make the same mistakes." Roels has since successfully trained pilots to fly the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor that he says is loaded with gadgets.
At least a dozen e-mails involved incidents that occurred 20 to 45 years ago, when GPS was not available. There were multiple causes but several common ones emerged, such as flying at night, flying with tailwinds that literally blew pilots past their destinations, and distraction from air traffic control. Flight following when VFR on a long cross-country flight is a good idea, unless you are sent miles off your route for traffic. In one case a controller asked a pilot to deviate from his course, and once the traffic was no longer a factor, he never found his course again. He looked for it. Hard. It's still missing today, but the pilot did find the wrong airport, land, inquire as to his whereabouts, and replan his flight.
In nearly all the cases the weather was good, if not perfect. At least three conscientious pilots had done careful preflight planning, including making copies of the arrival airport runway diagram, but discovered that there were two airports within 10 to 30 miles of one another that looked just alike. Their runways had exactly or nearly the same headings, with highways and lakes located within the same proximity and orientation to the airport. But in the three cases one airport had a tower and the other didn't. You guessed it: The pilots landed — without permission — and had some explaining to do.
There are airports in confusing environments, too, as one writer pointed out. Try flying over Wichita's Beech Factory Airport (Runway 18/36) some hazy overcast night and telling it apart from Col. James Jabara Airport (Runway 18/36). The distance between them is three nautical miles: Think fast! On a dark and stormy night it is difficult to overfly what looks like a safe haven. Fortunately Bill Reed, AOPA 5631534, of Akron, correctly landed at Jabara years ago despite the fact that the airport identifier had been recently changed and did not match the identifier in his GPS database. He added a user waypoint with the proper identifier before departing on the return trip to Ohio. That brings us back to the GPS issue.
How can a working GPS moving map, properly programmed and showing a correct course line direct to the destination, lead a pilot astray? The problem occurs in the transition from the moving map to the view out the window. Dr. Cary N. Mariash, AOPA 1152964, of Minneapolis knows how easily it can happen. He was arriving from El Paso, Texas, at North Las Vegas Airport in Nevada, or so he thought, when he began to line up on a runway at Nellis Air Force Base a few miles away. He had not been to the area before. "The course line was to the correct airport, but the wrong airport was under the course line," he said. "I had just stopped using the GPS and was relying on visual acquisition of the approach to the airport." Fortunately a controller caught his error and he avoided landing.
Many other pilots reported a similar problem. Erick Jackowsky, AOPA 4452538, of Pompton Plains, New Jersey, had a direct course line set from Lincoln Park Airport, New Jersey, to Perkiomen Valley Airport in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and he had his GPS coupled to his horizontal situation indicator (HSI), but there were avionics interface problems. The GPS and HSI also were tied into a single-axis autopilot that was, unbeknownst to him, also on the blink. He was going to Perkiomen to fix the problem with the link between the HSI and the GPS. "I flew with my [moving map] screen set to 30-nm range where airports were 10 nm apart," Jackowsky wrote. He landed when his aircraft led him to the wrong airport, figured it out, and proceeded to the correct destination.
Lack of familiarity with the GPS was listed in several e-mails as another common problem. One pilot admitted that his portable GPS was so new he didn't know how to operate it, and it was causing him to make constant programming errors. His situational awareness improved once he threw it into the backseat. Another pilot didn't realize that he needed to enter the letter K before the airport name. A mistake like that can send you out of the Northern Hemisphere — assuming you have the fuel.
An overall impression of the e-mails indicates that pilots are unwilling to stare at a moving map in the cockpit when entering a busy terminal area, and that is a good thing. Your head should be out the window, where the action is. Maybe the solution is to keep the paper chart out. As GPS units become better and better, and manufacturers assure us that the way of the future is a paperless cockpit, we are less inclined to unfold those crisp, unused charts. At least we still carry them, right?
The same sorts of problems are occurring even with aircraft equipped with glass cockpits. In one such case, the airplane had a glass cockpit and an autopilot with GPS roll steering that could not only find the airport but also line up on the centerline. All the pilot had to do was reduce power and land.
That's the dream, right? An airplane that just takes you there. He correctly programmed the GPS, but the course passed over Wilson Industrial Air Center at Wilson, North Carolina, along the way to Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport, North Carolina. The pilot, seeing Wilson Industrial Air Center, thought the GPS was making him bypass his intended destination, so he turned off the autopilot and set up a final approach. At that point the controller and the pilot caught the mistake and he avoided landing at the wrong airport.
One of the more unusual e-mails listed AOPA as a contributing factor to landing at the wrong airport. Larry Jeffus, AOPA 4337214, of Garland, Texas, had seen the AOPA Air Safety Foundation video "Lost and Crossed," in which I starred as a third-rate actor. Possibly fourth rate. It suggested that if you use GPS you'll get rusty on other navigational skills, so you should turn it off every now and then and practice. He did and landed at the wrong airport.
The point of the video was proven, although the tower controller he failed to contact prior to landing was a little angry. "As pointed out in the AOPA/FAA safety DVD, I have learned that I obviously need to continue to practice my pilotage skills," Jeffus said.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links to topics related to landing at the wrong airport and e-mails from AOPA members about the topic may be found on AOPA Online.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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