I'm interested in how decisions and mistakes are made in the cockpit.

According to a brief news report about a recent landing at the wrong airport (see also the Aviation Herald report):

Landings at wrong airports by commercial pilots, while unusual, are still more common than many passengers may realize or airlines would like to acknowledge.

An Associated Press search two years ago of government safety data and news reports since the early 1990s found at least 150 flights in which US commercial passenger and cargo planes have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time.

In most cases, the pilots were cleared by controllers to fly based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occurred at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn’t match what they were seeing through their windows – a runway straight ahead.

Is there a clear pattern in the decision-making process that leads to such landings?

For example:

  • Does the transition from automated or instrument flight to visual flight represent a vulnerable point in cockpit management?
  • Is this phase of flight (perhaps after a long day) associated with moments of pilot inattention?
  • Are there issues in the relationship that a flight crew has with navigational equipment that allow it to be 'disregarded' in this way?

I don't know if any of these are actually involved, they're just examples that I'm suggesting because I'd like a deeper answer than "sometimes pilots are inattentive".

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    $\begingroup$ 10 miles seems like a long distance but from the air even airports 40 miles apart can look very close. In this case a contributing factor is that the two airports have nearly identical runway configurations. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Jul 9 '16 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ Most such incidents are probably linked with loss of situational awareness. The interesting part, of course, is figuring out what causes this loss of SA. $\endgroup$ Jul 9 '16 at 11:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related: What is supposed to prevent a commercial crew from flying to the wrong airport? $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Jul 9 '16 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ Makes me wonder why airports don't simply flash a Morse code or something from the airport beacon. Positive visual identification. Won't help in IMC, but the instruments are for that. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Jul 10 '16 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ One thing that they are doing to help with this problem is that in the last few years they have started showing nearby airports on instrument approach plates to help with situational awareness. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jul 11 '16 at 4:41

I've been in the cockpit three times in which we realized we were maneuvering to land at the wrong airport in time to avoid so. All three times were at night; all three in VFR conditions, all three with the incorrect runway having the same directional orientation as the correct runway, all three with those runways being separated by just a few miles, and all three being the first time the pilot flying had been into the intended airport.

If I had to characterize the root cause, I would describe it as tunnel vision so to speak, being so focused on what was seen as being where the pilot(s) wanted to go that they failed to take into account that the conditions warranted looking around to ensure that that was where they really wanted to go.

The first and only time I personally almost made the mistake was in the early 1970s ferrying a Grumman American Traveler from the factory in Savannah home to Oregon. Close to midnight, we were under a low but legal ceiling over Mississippi flat land along a Victor airway westbound, navigating by a VOR just beyond our intended airport. The aircraft did not have DME. The airway passed a bit south of our intended airport. It also passed a bit south of another airport 30 or so nautical east of the intended. Both airports had runway lights, both were north-south runways. I contacted the intended airport tower, reported the (wrong) airport in sight, and was given clearance to land. On final I realized that the lights of the town were in the wrong place in relation to the airport, looked on the sectional along the airway, and realized my mistake.

The second time was in the 1980s. I was the captain of a SA-227 Metroliner with a brand new first officer the flying pilot. The intended airport was an uncontrolled field, weather was clear. I called the airport in sight and asked the f.o. if he had it. He replied that he did. We typically made a right-base entry for the runway off our en route course. At the appropriate time, configured to land, he started to turn toward the runway. However, instead of turning right, he started a left turn. I realized that when he had said he had the airport in sight he was looking at the runway ahead and to our left rather the the correct runway ahead and to our right.

Finally, in the late 1990s I was jumpseating on a UPS 757 (as I remember) into Miami. It was around 04:30 or so, still dark, clear weather, no traffic. Neither the captain or the f.o. had been into Miami (or at least so they said later). The captain called the airport in sight and Miami Approach cleared them for the visual. My first clue that something was wrong was when the captain then told the f.o., who was the flying pilot, that he needed to get down, get configured. I figured, correctly, that they had made the mistake many, many others had made. They has mistaken the Opa Locka airport for the Miami Airport. Both have multiple runways, both the same pattern. As politely as I could I asked them if they could see a small smudge of blue neon around 10 miles in front of the nose. They said they could, and I told them that was the Miami Sofitel which was completely outlined at the time in blue neon and was alongside the runway they would be using.

Experience is the teacher, which is why when going into Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah for the first time and at night but in clear weather, when asked if I had the airport in sight, I asked for the ILS.

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    $\begingroup$ How much onus would you put on the ATC for not noticing deviations? It sounds like the first two you described were to into untowered fields, so it would probably be less likely for them to notice, but on the UPS flight, had you not corrected them, would you have expected Miami approach to notice they were lining up on Opa Locka instead? $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Jul 10 '16 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW The first two were below en route radar and there was no approach radar (long time ago). In the first instance, when I fessed up to the tower what I had done and that I would get there shortly, he just laughed and said they had that happen every now and then. In the case of the UPS flight, I'm sure Miami Approach would have caught the problem had I not pointed it out. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jul 10 '16 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ Don't be SO sure, as airplanes have actually landed at OPF when intending to land at MIA.... $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jul 11 '16 at 4:39

There or a number of reasons why this might happen. Nighttime with its lack of visual cues can make it difficult to identify the correct airport. Another one would be a city with multiple airports clustered closely together, especially if a neighboring airports have runways which parallel each other. Crew exhaustion and fatigue can be another one, especially after a long flight.

This was a textbook example of an airplane landing on runway at the wrong airport. In July 2012, a C-17 cargo aircraft which a departed Bagrim airbase in Afghanistan some 16 hours earlier for MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Florida landed at nearby Peter O Night airport in Tampa in broad daylight. The crew was fatigued, both airports lie in close proximity to one another and both have runways which are parallel to the other

  • $\begingroup$ And this is (one of the reasons) why we have relief crews. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Apr 14 at 1:52

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