You have been cleared to land on Runway 26R from a right traffic pattern and told to follow an aircraft on a three-mile final. You extend your downwind leg until you spot the other aircraft, then when the traffic has almost reached the runway you turn base to maintain safe separation.
It’s after you roll out on final that you realize you have actually spotted and followed an aircraft landing on parallel Runway 26L, and that you have aligned yourself to land on that runway.
Visualizing and executing an airport traffic pattern is a challenge student pilots master early in training as a prerequisite to solo. But take a pilot away from the familiar home-airport runway, or add an unexpected element to a familiar scenario, and a pilot’s performance, if based mostly on rote repetition of past traffic patterns, can deteriorate in a hurry. Even just switching to using the opposite end of a familiar runway can unmask problems associated with rote-level learning.
Does that mean that new pilots hold a near-monopoly on traffic-pattern errors?
Not at all. “As a Flight Instructor I have probably landed at this airport a thousand times,” wrote the pilot involved in the scenario described above, in an explanatory filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System. “I realize that a certain amount of this issue was focusing on the other aircraft and not my total surroundings. A good lesson on why we should treat every landing as a go around possibility.”
That CFI is not alone: Other pilots of considerable experience share stories of landing the wrong way or other traffic-pattern errors—sometimes associated with a first arrival at an unfamiliar airport or dealing with a distraction such as conflicting traffic.
Don’t assume that landing at a towered airport ensures that the pilot will get it right—although an error committed there is less likely to result in a wrong-way landing than at a nontowered airport, where the arrival may not be under observation by another party.
Even when landing at the most familiar airport, an expectation of receiving “the usual” clearance can induce error. Avoid that problem by remaining aware of your “total surroundings,” and by keeping the go-around option in mind—both steps recommended by a pilot who learned from his own mistake.