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November 22, 2013

Commentary: Why Did a B747 DreamLifter Land at Jabara?

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Written by: Justin Schlechter
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On Thursday morning, November 21, 2013, I turned on my cell phone after landing in Anchorage, Alaska after flying all night from JFK. It was about 10:30 AM EST. As my phone started retrieving email, I got a strange text message from a good friend who currently works for the FAA.

“Question of the day,” he wrote. “Can an empty 747 operate off 6000 feet of runway? No load and an hour of fuel?”

I quickly replied, “Definitely. Without a problem. Why?”

At this point I had no idea what was the context of the question, but I soon discovered upon walking into the terminal and seeing CNN that an Atlas Air B747 DreamLifter had accidentally landed at Jabara Airport outside of Wichita, KS. The intended destination was McConnell Air Force Base just a few miles away.

Many people wonder how this could happen, given the advanced avionics coupled with the impressive training all 747 pilots receive. This is a difficult question to answer, but consider these facts: it wasn’t the first time this has happened, as commercial flights have landed at incorrect destinations in the past. If history repeats itself, an errant landing will almost certainly happen again.

As pilots, we try to learn not only from our own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others. Every airline has it own set of Standard Operating Practices (SOP’s). Some airlines require an instrument landing system (ILS) to be tuned for every approach, regardless of the weather. Some airlines don’t even allow nighttime visual approaches by their pilots. Although we don’t know what exactly went on in the DreamLifter cockpit last night, we can conclude something didn’t go according to plan. Those circumstances will be investigated, and procedures will be implemented to minimize the chance of it happening again.

Speculation aside, I can say that flying at night into what might have been an unfamiliar area adds layers of complication to acquiring and flying a visual approach. In this particular instance, the DreamLifter was approaching McConnell runway 19L. Runway 19L is 12,000 feet long and 150ft wide. Just a few miles away is Jabara’s Runway 18/36, which is 6,000 feet long and 100ft wide. Many speculate that the flight crew should have immediately noticed the runway being much shorter and should not have landed. However, this doesn’t take into account that the visual perspective of a 12000’x150’ runway and a 6000’x100’ runway is almost identical. They are in very similar proportions which can make a nighttime approach to the smaller runway quite deceiving. Did the crew possibly visually acquire Jabara, and think it was McConnell? Possibly, but we’ll have to wait for more details.

My intention is not to defend the crew’s actions. They are responsible for landing at the correct airport. As part of the investigation, all crew members will be questioned regarding this incident, and after conclusions are drawn, we’ll be able to make a more educated response to the events. For now, nobody was hurt, and as I correctly advised my friend, a different flight crew was able to execute a takeoff from Jabara.

The positive takeaway from this event is that every pilot should now be just a little more vigilant when setting up and briefing his approach and landing. I’m attempting to be as careful as I can with this brief synopsis as it is very new incident, and only limited information is currently available. I have pilot friends at Atlas who fly this exact airplane, and Atlas is filled with experienced, competent and professional aviators. But as part of human nature, no one is immune from erring, and an event like this reminds all professional aviators to maintain vigilance and continue learning every day.

Justin Schlechter is a B747-400 first officer for a major airline. He lives with his family on Long Island.

About the Author

Justin Schlechter



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