They were in Kansas. That’s about all they knew for sure.
After mistakenly touching down their behemoth Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. cargo aircraft yesterday at a municipal airport 9 miles (14 kilometers) from their destination, McConnell Air Force Base, the crew heard from an air-traffic controller they were off course.
“Yes sir, we just landed at the other airport,” a pilot responded, according to a recording of radio calls on LiveATC.net reported by Wichita TV station KSN’s website.
The plane lifted off without incident today shortly after 1:15 p.m. local time with a new crew. It landed at McConnell at 1:35 p.m., according to the aircraft-tracking website, FlightAware.com.
At first the pilots who landed last night thought they were at the Beech Factory Airport in Wichita. They only realized where they were after a controller notified them they were at Colonel James Jabara Airport, a municipal field with a runway half as long as the Air Force base’s, according to the recordings.
The plane, a modified Boeing Co. 747-400 Dreamlifter with an expanded fuselage designed to carry parts for Boeing’s latest model, the 787, was to land at McConnell and unload as planned, said Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman. No cargo had to be removed, he said.
The cargo plane touched down safely at 9:44 p.m. local time yesterday at Jabara, which doesn’t have a control tower, according to a statement from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
The agency is investigating how it happened, as is Boeing, which contracted with Atlas to fly the plane, according to Alder.
Bonnie Rodney, a spokeswoman for Atlas, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. Atlas climbed as much as 1.4 percent after the plane took off. The shares traded at $37.34 at 3:27 p.m. in New York, up 2.6 percent.
Minutes of confusion passed as controllers and the pilots attempted yesterday to sort out where the plane was and how to undo the error. When a controller asked the pilots to verify that they were at Beech, one replied: “We think so.”
The controller asked if they could lift off again to fly to McConnell and a pilot responded: “We’re working on those details now.”
At one point, the pilot asked for the GPS coordinates of Beech airport. When those didn’t match what the instruments on his plane were showing, he read his own coordinates to the controller.
Finally, a controller told them that they were in Jabara, based on what they “saw on the radar scope.”
The Dreamlifter, which is capable of weighing as much as 800,000 pounds (363,000 kilograms), was designed to carry large cargo such as components for the Boeing 787, according to a company fact sheet.
Cockpit instruments and navigation devices should have made it clear to the pilots they were at the wrong airport, said David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus.
Sometimes pilots may be led astray by what is known as an “expectancy error,” he said. In this case, both airports have runways running in the same direction.
“In their minds, they are thinking our airport has a north-south runway, and there is a north-south runway,” he said. “So, therefore, that must be our airport.”
While he was unaware of an airliner accident related to pilots accidentally landing at the wrong airport, such incidents aren’t unheard of, John Purvis, the retired chief accident investigator for Boeing, said in an interview.
“I wouldn’t even call it unusual,” Purvis said. “It doesn’t happen every day. But it sure happens every year.”
In 2009, a Delta Air Lines Inc. Northwest flight overshot the Minneapolis airport after the pilots became distracted while working on their company-issued laptops, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Because Jabara doesn’t have a control tower, arriving and departing planes would have to announce their maneuvers over a common radio frequency. Pilots flying into uncontrolled airports are on their own to watch for traffic.
The takeoff was aided by a headwind, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. Winds were at 21 miles (34 kilometers) an hour shortly before 1 p.m. local time. Planes require less runway distance when taking off into the wind.