Seven years after the incident, US investigators have disclosed the awkward radio exchange which underlined that a Boeing ‘Dreamlifter’ crew had unintentionally landed at the wrong Wichita airport.
Just over a minute after the pilots had landed at Colonel James Jabara airport, the local controller for McConnell air force base contacted the crew and instructed them to “check wheels down” and to expect a mid-field turn-off.
With the controller clearly believing the aircraft was still inbound, one of the pilots responded: “We might…we’ll get back to you here momentarily, we’re not on your approach.”
Some 20s later the crew spoke to the controller again: “Yes, sir, we just landed at the other airport.”
The crew had noticed the runway had been shorter than expected and did not recognise their surroundings after landing, but initially believed – after realising the error – that they had landed at a third airport, Beech Factory, situated between Jabara and McConnell.
Dreamlifters are heavily modified Boeing 747-400s, formally designated as the -400LCF, featuring an outsize fuselage to transport Boeing 787 aerostructures for assembly.
Arriving from New York JFK as flight 5Y4241 at night on 21 November 2013, the aircraft was bound for McConnell’s runway 19L.
The crew testified that the captain, who was flying, had entered the area navigation approach to 19L into the flight-management computer at JFK.
It was cleared for this approach and, upon contacting McConnell tower, cleared to land on 19L. The aircraft, at this point, was about 12nm north of McConnell and 4.6nm north of Jabara airport, both of which have similarly-oriented runways.
“Both pilots stated that a well-lit runway was visible in the approximate location of [McConnell], which they believed to be runway 19L,” says the US National Transportation Safety Board in its analysis, published on 22 September.
The captain had briefed that acquiring McConnell’s runway visually was not easy unless the approach and runway lights were bright.
Upon sighting the lit runway the captain discontinued the area navigation approach and commenced a manual descent, slightly steeper than normal. He had previously flown the approach at least three times, and expected to be high on the profile as had been the case during the other arrivals.
“Neither pilot cross-checked nor verified the airport position using on-board navigation after that point,” says the inquiry.
McConnell had not been shown on the captain’s navigation because the range had been set to just 5nm.
No minimum safe altitude warning alert sounded as the Dreamlifter erroneously descended towards Jabara airport because the systems assumed the aircraft’s approach was intentional. The airport controller had less than a minute to detect the premature descent.
The aircraft landed on Jabara’s runway 18 which, at just 6,100ft, was half the length of McConnell’s runway 19L.
Investigators state that, after misidentifying the destination airport and runway, the pilots failed to follow company procedures for cross-checking navigational information and visual cues.