Citing five incidents in two years in which flight crews mistakenly landed at the wrong airport, the NTSB has issued two recommendations to the FAA suggesting air traffic controllers issue more detailed landing clearances, and that software designed to automatically alert ATC to premature descents be updated with more detailed parameters.
The May 4 recommendation follows a March 2014 safety alert on the same topic with advice for flight crews to help avoid making similar mistakes. Among those earlier recommendations, adherence to standard procedures, extra vigilance during night approaches, preflight familiarization with the destination and surrounding area, using the most precise navigation aids available, and confirming that the destination airport is correctly identified before reporting it in sight.
The NTSB’s recommendations to the FAA include cases in which controllers could have helped flight crews discover the error more promptly with a little help from their computers. In the case of an Atlas Air Boeing 747-400LCF (Dreamlifter) flight that mistook Colonel James Jabara Airport for McConnell Air Force Base in 2013, the NTSB noted that minimum safe altitude warning software designed to alert ATC when a flight descends too low on approach was set up to automatically assume that the flight was landing at Jabara Airport when the aircraft headed in that direction instead of its planned destination, and therefore did not issue an alert when the aircraft descended sooner than would be expected. This feature “renders MSAW less effective at providing a warning,” the NTSB noted.
In the case of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 crew which mistook the M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport (PLK) for Branson Airport (BBG)—both in Branson, Missouri—on Jan. 12, 2014, the flight was cleared to land at Branson Airport after the crew reported the field in sight. Both of those airports were below available radar coverage, and the altitude alerting software would therefore not have come into play. The NTSB suggested that the FAA issue more detailed landing clearances, particularly in cases where one or more airports in close proximity might cause confusion.
The NTSB suggests controllers should specify that the intended destination is at a given direction and distance (such as 12 o’clock and five miles), and also note other airports in the vicinity by direction and distance, and call on the flight crew to report their specific destination in sight. The controller who cleared the Southwest Airlines flight did not provide the location of M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, which has a runway alignment similar to Branson Airport a few miles away.
The NTSB acknowledged that flight crews need to remain vigilant and ensure they are landing at the correct airport, but that landing clearances given under current practices could confuse pilots, and updated ATC procedures would add “another measure of protection.”
Getting lost and landing at the wrong airport has been a problem for pilots before and after the invention of GPS, as AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh noted in 2006.
The NTSB noted three additional incidents of wrong-airport landings since 2012, including a U.S. Air Force C-17 that landed on the 3,580-foot runway of Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa, Florida, four miles from MacDill Air Force Base in July 2012; a Silver Airways Saab 340 that mistook Fairmont Airport in Fairmont, West Virginia (3,200-foot runway) for the nearby North Central West Virginia Airport (7,000-foot runway) 10 miles away in August 2012; and a Beechcraft Bonanza that landed at Barksdale Air Force Base instead of Shreveport Regional Airport in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Nov. 24, 2014.