Moments after touching down, the pilot of a Boeing 747 cargo jet seemed confused in his exchanges with air traffic controllers.
His jet had just landed on the wrong runway – and it was just long enough.
When told he was nine miles north of his intended destination, he made an unusual admission: “Uh, yes sir, we just landed at the other airport.”
The specially-adapted 747 Dreamlifter, flown by a two-person crew with no passengers, intended to touch down at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas late on Wednesday night, where it was supposed to deliver parts for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner to a nearby company that makes large sections of the next-generation jet.
Instead, the cargo plane landed at the smaller Col James Jabara Airport. The jet took off again yesterday and within minutes landed at its original destination.
Over the radio, the pilot could be heard mixing up east and west, acknowledging he could not read his own handwriting and getting distracted from the conversation by “looking at something else”.
The plane flew into an area where there are three airports with similar runway configurations – the US Air Force base, the Jabara airfield and a third in between called Beech Airport.
That could help explain the mistake and pilots also say it can be tough to tell a long runway from a shorter one on final approach. In addition, Jabara is directly on the path towards McConnell.
While it is rare for a pilot to land at the wrong airport, confusion is common.
Once every month or two, a pilot headed towards Wichita’s Mid-Continent airport begins to turn towards McConnell by mistake, says Brent Spencer, a former air traffic controller in Wichita who is now an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Mid-Continent and McConnell “have an almost identical runway set-up, so it was not at all uncommon for an airliner or someone coming in from the east ... to pick up the wrong runway lights,” he said.
Jabara’s runway length is towards the low end of what Boeing recommends for the 747. How much runway the plane needs varies depending on weather, the weight of the loaded plane and the airport’s elevation.
Boeing owns the plane involved in the mistaken landing, but it is operated by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, a New York-based company that provides crews or planes to companies that need them.
An Atlas Air spokeswoman declined to comment and referred inquiries to Boeing, where spokesman Doug Alder said the company would be consulting Atlas to “find out exactly what happened so that it doesn’t happen again”.
The Federal Aviation Administration plans to investigate whether the pilot followed controllers’ instructions or broke any federal rules.
The modified 747 is one of a fleet of four that hauls parts around the world to make Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The Dreamlifter is a 747-400 with its body expanded to hold whole fuselage sections and other large parts.
According to flight-tracking service FlightAware, the DreamLifter in question has been shuttling between Kansas and Italy, where the centre fuselage section and part of the tail of the 787 are made.
Although rare, landings by large aircraft at smaller airports have happened from time to time. Last July a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Florida landed without incident at the small Peter O Knight Airport nearby.
The following month, a Silver Airways pilot making one of the airline’s first flights to Bridgeport, West Virginia, mistakenly landed his Saab 340 at a tiny airport in nearby Fairmont.