A Career-Limiting Move

Written by larry on December 2nd, 2013

A beautiful, clear day. An experienced, competent crew. A modern, state-of-the-art perfectly functioning airplane. It would be pretty tough to not feel serene, confident and competent under the circumstances. So how could the crew of Atlas Air 4241, a Boeing 747, manage to land at Jabara Airport instead of McConnell Air Force Base, eight miles to the south?

Well, its really not that tough to do, actually. Even in this age of GPS receivers so accurate that even an inexpensive one can place itself on the proper side of the line down the middle of the runway.

I think a contributing factor was the clear weather. In on a crappy, hazy day, a crew will most likely use their instruments to find the airport. On a day with actual instrument weather, a crew will necessarily use their instruments to find the airport. But on a beautiful, clear day, a crew might well look out the window, see the airport, and land.

Here’s McConnell:


And here’s Jabara:


Yes, they look different. But do the really look that different?

I think I could have made that mistake. I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t have made it, at least with an equally experienced pilot in the other seat.

There’s a program sponsored by NASA that attempts to capture data from incidents where pilots <ahem> fouled up, but didn’t do any damage or cause any danger. Reports are voluntary, and if there was no criminal intent, the report can work as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Probably this works better when your incident doesn’t become national news.

The point of the NASA program is that, with it, all pilots can learn from the mistakes of the few. That’s a good thing.

Lesson learned for me: Check the GPS even when I’m sure I see the airport in front of me. After all, who am I going to believe; the GPS or my own lyin’ eyes.




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