October 15, 2012
By Dan Namowitz
Nothing beats touching down on a 5,000-foot-long runway that appears dead ahead at the end of a close instrument approach.
Unless the runway you meant to land on is still a few miles ahead.
With so many airports out there, some instrument approach courses unavoidably overfly one airport en route to another. That can be comforting, but on occasion it can lead to mistaken identity.
Even in visual conditions, airport misidentification happens. Make an inaccurate estimate of the distance to the threshold, and spot an airport with similar runway alignment, and the trap is set.
Now throw in “Cleared for the visual approach,” or a distraction, and before you know it, you’ve touched down in terra incognita.
Or you roll your Cessna 340A off the end of a runway not designed with you in mind. “In a written report to the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot stated he was cleared by ATC for a visual approach into Gnoss Field. He acknowledged an airport in sight and flew a standard pattern for landing. The pilot landed, overran the 1,500-foot runway, and came to rest in a vineyard on the departure end of the runway. He mistook the accident airport for his destination, which is nearby and has a 3,300-foot runway.”
Short of a gear-up landing, nothing may raise incredulous eyebrows of a nonpilot faster than a landing on the wrong pavement—but any pilot should be wary of how excessive workload, systems problems, or confusing terrain might yield just that result.
At some airports, efforts are made to lower that risk. The AOPA Airports listing for Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., contains this FAA note of warning: “Dutchess County Arpt Lctd 3.3 Nm SW Ign Vortac; Do Not Mistake for Stewart Intl.”
Destination disconnect doesn’t dwell exclusively in cockpits. If a vector doesn’t make sense, it’s time to query ATC on where they are sending you. That element was relevant to a 2003 fatal accident involving a Cirrus SR20 pilot with “diverted attention.”
In a truly odd case, the passenger got the destination wrong, requiring the pilot to take off again and fly a short hop to the right airport resulting—no kidding—in a gear-up landing.
NTSB summaries include 86 reports containing the term “wrong airport” dating to 1964. Not many, but presumably a small percentage of all arrivals at unintended destinations.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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