• Crews are skilled and well trained.
  • In a crew of two, one can fix others confusion.
  • There is a flight plan, ATC can inform of a deviation.
  • GNSS / ILS / VOR / DME frequencies and distances increase situational awareness.

But still:

After having posted this question, I did an additional research, to find NTSB came back to this problem recently, in May 2015:

Relatively few errors, but consequence could be tragic

150 approaches or so wrong are a very small fraction of the many millions of flawless flights, however the NTSB emphasizes the consequences could have been tragic, e.g. if the erroneous airport didn't provide the expected runway length.


  • Did the analysis of these incidents show distinct patterns in their occurrence that could be prevented by different procedures or different navigation instruments?

  • Did the involved pilots, or other professionals think specific improvements had or still have to be made to avoid recurrence?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Some common sense! $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Jul 14, 2015 at 13:54
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 7.5 times a year seems shockingly low considering that there are something like 29,000 airline flights a day just in the US. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Jul 14, 2015 at 17:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Very true, @egid, but each one makes for some great headlines! $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jul 14, 2015 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ This question is not useful for helping anybody understand aviation. Consider asking "what's supposed to prevent cars from being accidentally driven off the road into large crowds?" (happens rarely, but BIG headlines when it does!) Or "what's supposed to prevent cooks from accidentally giving all their customers food poisoning?" (same rare/headline deal applies). The interesting question is in the one in a million (+/-) cases, what happened that a crew made the mistakes they made, missed the navigation cues, & wasn't alerted by ATC? That's very specific to each occurrence, though. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 14, 2015 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ @RalphJ: The first question is: "Did the analysis of these incidents show distinct patterns in their occurrence that could be prevented by different procedures or different navigation instruments?". That is similar to your point I think. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Jul 14, 2015 at 20:25

3 Answers 3


According to the Wikipedia article on IFR:

VFR is the most common mode of operation for small craft. However, it is only safe to fly VFR when these outside references can be clearly seen from a sufficient distance; when flying through or above clouds, or in fog, rain, dust or similar low-level weather conditions, these references can be obscured.

So basically, a pilot would land at a wrong airport due to one of the following conditions:

  1. He/She did not have previous experience of landing at the said airport
  2. He/She paid more attention to VFR that IFR (which is usually suggested), and the proximity of the airports confused him/her

Any aircraft operating under VFR must have the required equipment on board, as described in FAR Part 91.205[5] (which includes some instruments necessary for IFR flight). VFR pilots may use cockpit instruments as secondary aids to navigation and orientation, but are not required to; the view outside of the aircraft is the primary source for keeping the aircraft straight and level (orientation), flying to the intended destination (navigation), and not hitting anything (separation).

This means that a pilor following VFR can get confused, and that would be a completely manual error. To prevent this from happening, he/she should raise a flag with the Control Tower before landing if his IFR shows a different destination, when compared to the place he is intending to land at following VFR.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Good answer; There are sometimes notes on sectional charts saying "don't confuse this airstrip with this other one" when the confusion has been common among even experienced pilot, but airliner pilots typically aren't flying by paper charts. $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Jul 14, 2015 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ It sounds like you are using "flying IFR" to mean "paying attention to electronic aids to navigation"-- as ipposed to using "pilotage"-- but that's not what it means. $\endgroup$ May 4, 2021 at 23:23

Normally you will never land at the wrong airport if it is towered because you make an announcement. So, for example, the pilot might say something like "Norwood tower Fedex123 ten miles out on two six zero with information Juliette". Then the tower might say something like "Fedex 123 please ident", then you ident. Then the tower might say "I have you 25 miles out on three one zero". Then you know something is wrong. If the tower does not answer at all that is another sign something is wrong.

Once I started to land on the wrong airport. I was flying into Nashua Boire field (KASH) from the north late at night. At that time the tower was closed at Nashua, so I was just announcing on CTAF which goes unanswered and that is normal. I see the runway, line up and am coming in, when WHOA! a big Embraer slides in right below me. We had plenty of separation, but nevertheless I am like, "What the hell is an Embraer doing here?" The answer, of course, is that I was not landing at KASH, but at Manchester, a much larger airport directly north of Nashua. In the darkness one runway looks like another.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wasn't there a case when a tower cleared a plane to land on a different airport? $\endgroup$
    – yo'
    Nov 11, 2015 at 17:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This was hilarious to.. news.aviation-safety.net/2014/01/15/… $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2015 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ IFR pilots—which is all airline flights—rarely report position, because they are under radar control all the time. The controller should normally notice the aircraft is not on the usual approach path, but if they are busy, they can miss it. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    May 4, 2021 at 21:44

Some of them are inexplicable, like the Dreamlifter 747-400 that landed at Jabara airport in Wichita, instead of McConnell Air Force Base. The aircraft REQUESTED and was issued the RNAV 19 approach, and stated it to the ICT controller, who then cleared the aircraft to land.

VFR conditions, at night.

Although this seems reasonable enough at first, I have to wonder how the pilots could confuse AAO (with its medium intensity lights) with IAB, which has high intensity lights with sequenced flashers (not to mention a LOT more runway lights).

The NTSB suggested that the controllers should tell the pilot about the other airport. Why should they? The aircraft was on a published approach!


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