How to NOT land at the wrong airport.


As a pilot, you’ve landed at airports around the world at least a thousand times in many different aircraft, day and night. So, are you confident? Relaxed? Sure?

Hell no, and with good reason: there’s just too much at stake. Passenger safety, professionalism, your career.

So you’ve spent that career–over three decades, and counting–as a professional pilot, trying diligently to NOT land at the wrong airport.

Here’s how.

It starts a thousand miles prior to landing, and it’s a mundane yet essential procedure. In the chocks, preflight, do it: you read the navigation waypoints from the screen displaying the route of flight in the jet’s navigation systems (there are two, backing each other up) out loud, while the First Officer reads both the paper flight plan and the Air Traffic Control system printout (you read it silently as a triple back up). They must match.

The last waypoint entry MUST at least be a runway at your destination, preferably an approach, too, but at the very least, a landing runway. This will be essential later.

Everything must match (ATC clearance, nav system route of flight) and so must the enroute distance in order for the fuel calculations to be valid. So once again, you MUST have an accurate final fix, preferably a runway.

Even at this preflight step, there are mundane challenges: tired? Long day? We’ve done this a zillion times before, in fact just last night? We’ll put in the final waypoints later, because we’re not sure which runway they’ll be landing on?

Don’t give in. Do every nitnoid step, every time. Route, mileage, verified. Period.

The same human factors challenges recur at the top of descent: almost done, tired, end of the work day, we’ve done this often.

Fight it! Verify the landing runway, and be sure it’s correct, complete, and active in the nav system.

On approach, be wary of the siren song from Air Traffic Control, especially at night: “Do you have the airport in sight?”

If you say yes, you’d better be 100% sure, but even then–the best answer is no.

Why? Because if you acknowledge visual contact with the runway, the next clearance you’ll get is “Cleared visual,” meaning radar service terminated–fly to and land on the designated runway.

Why? I mean, why accept that clearance rather than maintain radar tracking of your position and altitude from the ground controllers monitoring you and, as importantly, the other air traffic around you?

Can you really identify and verify other aircraft and ensure separation–at night? Why would you?

Just last night, landing at DFW, something I’ve done a thousand times, we refused the visual clearance.


Because a thin and broken under cast obscured at least half of the ground references we’re dependent upon to confirm our position–and that’s at an airport I’ve flown into since the eighties, much less some small, out-of-the-way airport I seldom see. Regardless, there’s no point in speculating or trying to visually orient ourselves with half of the usual landmarks obscured, especially at night.

Plus, why not give our passengers the benefit of Air Traffic Control radar keeping us clear of other aircraft?

Finally, having done due diligence a thousand miles back, we know the distance remaining (there’s a mileage countdown displayed in six places in the cockpit, including in my heads up display–if we’ve put the landing runway into the system) so that if we only accept the clearance after we’re vectored onto a final approach segment, we’ll know exactly how many miles to go before touch down–if we constantly check it.

Using the three to one ratio of a landing glideslope, we know that at 1,000 feet, we’d better be no farther than 3.3 miles from touchdown.

If the “distance remaining” indicates significantly more–you’re at the wrong airport.

If you’re under radar control, that won’t happen. If you’re on a published and verified segment of the instrument approach, that won’t happen. If you’re monitoring the distance remaining to the valid touchdown point, that won’t happen.

Tired happens. Get-home-itis happens. Routine happens. But god forbid the perfect storm of those human factors, plus poor visibility, unfamiliar terrain, and a failed procedural navigation process (the mundane stuff cited above) all comes together.

As with so many things in aviation, it’s not necessarily the big, spectacular failures that bite you in the ass. Rather, it’s the simple, tiresome, mundane everyday stuff that must be attended to–or, the results can be headline news, and not in a good way.

15 Responses to “How to NOT land at the wrong airport.”

  1. Thanks for an informative and well written post!

  2. Lego Spaceman Says:

    After this was in the news, for the second time this year, I was really hoping that it would be written about here.

    I wondered how it was even possible to land at the wrong airport. Thanks for clearing that up.

    Can you do a run through of a pilots thought process once he’s committed to land and realizes that he is aiming at the wrong airport?

  3. […] southwest jet lands at wrong airport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  4. Love your blog but I take issue with some of the comments in this article regarding ATC. I’m an air traffic controller with 14 years of experiance. When you say that we clear you for a visual approach and radar service is then automatically terminated is most often not likely the case. Im fact all you are being authorized is to proceed visually to the airport. As controllers we are still required to provide the standard “1000 and 3″ unless you report traffic to follow in sight. In which case the only traffic you are required to maintain visual on is your interval or ” traffic to follow”. Unless of course you are landing at an uncontrolled airport, In which case then your radar services would then be terminated. Which did not seem to happen In this case. Just thought I would add to the discussion, like I said love the blog. Keep at it

    • I ALWAYS appreciate the good work of my ATC colleagues, and your comments as well.

      Maybe I’m thinking from my perspective–when I’m cleared visual, I hold myself responsible for VFR separation.

      • Chris,

        I appreciate that, I couldn’t fathom your perspective with so much going on. Just trying to give you a little insight on what controllers might be thinking/applying. We are all trying to do the same thing, get planes safely from A to Z. Keep up the good work.

      • You may or may not have read the most recent NTSB update re: the Branson mis-identification, but they said the captain had never landed there, and the F/O had landed there only once, day VFR.

        Yet they called the field from 15 miles out, at night, and accepted a visual approach clearance.

        Good grief. Here’s the whole update:

        NTSB Issues Investigative Update on the Southwest Airlines Wrong Airport Landing Incident

        January 17, 2014

        WASHINGTON — As part of its ongoing investigation into an incident involving a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 that landed at the wrong airport on January 13 in Missouri, the National Transportation Safety Board today released a brief investigative update.

        On Tuesday, January 14, the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder from the Southwest aircraft arrived in the NTSB laboratory and were prepared for readout and analysis. The FDR recorded approximately 1000 parameters and contained approximately 27 hours of recorded data. Investigators have begun to analyze the data.

        In addition, the CVR contained two-hours of good quality recording. According to the CVR, the Southwest crew was informed by air traffic control that that they were 15 miles from their intended target, which was Branson Airport. The crew responded that they had the airfield in sight and ATC cleared the aircraft for a visual approach and landing on runway 14 at Branson Airport. According to the CVR, the landing was uneventful and it was not until shortly after landing that the crew realized they had landed at the wrong airport.

        On Thursday, January 16, the two pilots and a Southwest dispatcher who was riding in the jump seat were interviewed by NTSB investigators.

        The captain has been with Southwest since 1999 and has about 16,000 flight hours including about 6,700 hours as a captain on the B-737. The captain informed investigators that this was his first flight into Branson Airport.

        The first officer has been with Southwest since 2001 and has about 25,000 flight hours. The first officer informed investigators that he had previously flown into Branson Airport one time, but during daylight hours.

        During the interviews, the pilots told investigators that the approach had been programmed into their flight management system, but that they first saw the airport beacon and the runway lights of M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, located in Hollister, Mo., which they mistakenly identified as Branson Airport. They cited the bright runway lights at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport and the fact that the runway was oriented in a similar direction. They also informed investigators that they flew a visual approach into what they believed to be Branson Airport and that they did not realize they were at the wrong airport until they had landed. They confirmed that they utilized heavy braking to bring the aircraft to a stop and then advised the Branson Airport tower that they had landed at the wrong airport.

  5. Enjoy hearing your view of it. Glad they hit the brakes hard – could have been more than laughs and headlines.

  6. wow…this is the first pilot blog I’ve come across on wordpress….. I always wanted to be a pilot until I got glasses on my nose. A shattered dream. Btw if we land on a wrong airport it would be a BIG BIG thing…especially if one is just a tourist and has pre-arranged for taxi etc…. 🙂 Appreciate the post!

  7. Jim Goldfuss Says:

    Perfect and just what I thought. I aspired to be an airline pilot, but things did not work out. None the less, I still fly, always study, and always keep up on all things aviation, with a bias towards the airlines. I usually hesitate to comment for fear of coming across as a “know it all” – I am not, but I learn from many friends with positions and experiences just like you. Your article answered every question I had about what goes on in the flight deck to prevent these very things from happening. I feel bad for the crew, because I know they never intended to suspend/end when the day started, but how 2 pilots (or 2 pilots and a dispatcher) still manage to do this just amazes me. Can I ask, from your standpoint, would you have expected ATC to issue a “low altitude alert” or even a “where are you going” remark? This is not to blame anyone, just another view I am exploring. Thanks for a great post!

    • I wouldn’t expect a “where are you” query because they are likely handling multiple aircraft and having given the VFR clearance to an aircraft, on board that aircraft I wouldn’t expect much else. A controller query would be nice, time and workload permitting, but I wouldn’t expect it.

  8. Jim Goldfuss Says:

    Reblogged this on groundpoint6 and commented:
    I try to dance lightly when I look at incidents like these, landing at the wrong airports. I never want my inquisitiveness to be mistaken for “knowing it all”. Everything I learn I apply to my flying, ad I always want the “big picture”. Here is a post regarding how the incidents are avoided.

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