Aeroplanes losing their way in the sky


The exchange between the pilot and the air traffic controller obtained from voice recordings is hilarious, and it is just as well that the passengers could not hear it.

I am not at your airport!

“I assume I’m not at your airport”, says one of the pilots of the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Flight 4013 to the controller in Branson, Missouri the intended destination. “4013, um, have you landed?” responds the controller.

It turns out that the aircraft had landed at Taney County airport. Taney County airport’s runway is 3,738 feet, about half the length of Branson’s runway at 7,140 feet. A Boeing 737-7H4 of the type used in this flight typically requires 5,500 feet of runway, depending on several conditions including aircraft loading, weather, wind and runway condition.

 Wrong airport, wrong country, opposite direction…

Evidently the saga of British Airways Flight BA3271 from London landing in Edinburgh Airport still in UK, instead of Dusseldorf in Germany on Sunday March 24, 2019 is not a unique case. Passengers were bemused to learn that they had landed in Edinburgh instead of Dusseldorf in Germany. It is akin to booking a flight from Nairobi to Zanzibar then ending up in Lodwar instead. Edinburgh and Dusseldorf are actually in opposite directions from each other!

See also: BA flight lands in Edinburgh instead of Dusseldorf by mistake

See also: British Airways plane accidentally flies to Scotland instead of Germany

See also: Revealed: why a British Airways flight to Germany accidentally landed in Scotland

The BAe 146-200 aircraft in Flight BA3271 was operated by a German charter company, WDL Aviation. The mix-up was due to the mis-filing of the flight plan. The aircraft subsequently took off from Edinburgh two and a half hours later and reached its intended destination five hours late. This will probably cost the airline. Competitors Ryanair could not resist ribbing the legacy carrier. In a tweet Ryanair offered British Airways a geography course for dummies…

The cases of British Airways Flight BA3271 and Southern Airlines Flight 4013 may superficially look similar, both involving airliners landing in the wrong airport. They are however fundamentally different. The former case of a mis-filed flight plan is an error of planning, whereas the in the latter case the aircraft was headed for the right airport but ended up at a different airport. This is an error of execution.

Flight plan error – Planning error

A flight plan is a document filed by a pilot or a flight dispatcher with the local Civil Aviation Authority prior to departure. It indicates the aircraft’s planned route or flight path. A flight plan generally includes basic information such as departure and arrival points, estimated time of flight, alternate airports in case of bad weather. It also includes the type of flight, whether using instrument or visual flight rules, the pilot’s information, the number of people on board and information about the aircraft itself. A flight plan includes two safety-critical aspects: these are the fuel calculation, and compliance with air traffic control requirements to minimise risk of midair collision. A wrongly filed flight plan is therefore an error in planning.

The saving grace is that the wrong paperwork will guarantees that the pilots and air traffic controllers are all reading from the same page; they all (incorrectly!) believe that the aeroplane is going to a particular destination, but correctly plan for it. The worst that can happen is that the passengers waste their time, and possibly miss connecting flights.

Execution error

Execution errors occur relatively frequently, especially if there is more than one airfield in close proximity. The airfield is usually a military base or a general aviation airport. This poses a danger because general aviation airports are usually smaller, with shorter runways. They also do not have requisite facilities to handle large commercial aircraft.

Cases of an aircraft appearing at the wrong airport however exposes the passengers to several other risks. Short runways are not the only hazard. Runways at higher elevation pose a great risk, since an aircraft will require a longer length to land. Other aircraft operating at the airport will not be aware of the potential conflicting traffic. Air traffic controllers may not detect a wrong airport landing in time to intervene because of other workload or radar coverage limitations.

Similar runways, same heading

It is not uncommon for runways of airports close to have the same heading; The general wind direction is usually the same, leading to similar construction. Runways are usually constructed to take advantage of the prevailing wind conditions, making runways in close proximity to have similar headings. Error is possible when two airfields are in close proximity and the pilot relies on visual instead of instruments and charts. ATC is also sometimes to blame. Night time errors are more frequent since pilots are attracted by the runway lights of the first airport that they see after commencing descent.

On December 18 2013, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767, Flight ET-815 bound for Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) mistakenly landed at Arusha Airport (ARK). The aircraft had 223 persons on board. The pilot had been informed of a light aircraft, a disabled Cessna Caravan on the runway. He was directed to land in runway 27, but instead landed in runway 27 of Arusha Airport. It appears that during descent the pilot saw an airport and prematurely abandoned the given procedure. He subsequently joined left downwind for runway 27 Arusha Airport while believing that he was proceeding to land at Kilimanjaro. His downwind position report was not challenged by the Kilimanjaro controller who should have had him in sight in that position.

Short runway

Perhaps the worst case of wrong airport occurred on January 17 2019. A Saha Airlines Boeing 707 intending to land at Payam Airport landed at the much smaller Fath Airport with a runway length of only 1,300 metres (4,300 feet). A Boeing 707 generally requires a runway length of more than 2,500 metres (8,200 feet). It overran the runway and crashed into houses past the end of the runway killing  15 of the 16 on board. The houses were empty at the time of the crash.The weather was also reported to be bad. The flight engineer is reported to have stated “We followed normal procedure and landed normally. Then all of a sudden we found ourselves at the end of the runway. It all happened so fast there was no time for any kind of reaction, not even a shout or a comment.”

Previously on November 16 2018, a Taban Airlines MD-88 carrying 155 passengers attempted to land on the same runway twice, mistaking it for the Payam runway, which is nearly inline. The aeroplane reached an altitude of 1 m on the first approach, before aborting the attempt. It aborted a second attempt, before making a safe landing at Payam.

The runways of the airports at Payam and Fath are almost in line. The thresholds of runways 30 and 31L are 10km apart. Often airports that have confused one crew, confuse other crew. Some airports are notorious for causing confusion.

Modern navigation systems accurate

It is an achievement that with modern air navigation systems, most flights end up in the right airports!

Passengers can however arrive at the wrong airport for totally different reasons, unrelated to flight or supporting crew. Some destinations regularly confuse travellers as they book their flights.

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