What, Again?

Written by larry on January 19th, 2014

It looks like this is getting to be a habit. For the second time in as many months, the crew of a jetliner has managed to land at the wrong airport. And this time, to make it more interesting, it was a jetliner full of passengers. On January 12, Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago Midway airport to Branson (MO) airport (BBG), managed to instead land at Clark Downtown (PLK).

Fortunately, no one was hurt, despite the runway at Clark being about half as long as the one in Branson. And the airmanship involved in getting a 737-700 into 3700 feet is quite laudable. Less so the pilot’s navigation acumen.

So, as this is starting to become a regular feature here, let’s take a look at the two airports, as they might be seen from an approaching airplane on a particular heading:





I’ve tweaked the relative altitude of the photos to make the airports look roughly the same size, but I left the runway heading the same on both images. The runway headings  at Branson and Clarke are different by twenty degrees.

If anything, the area around Clark looks more ‘built up’, which might mislead a pilot unfamiliar with the area. In fact the pilot involved, despite having flown for 12,000 hours, had never flown into Branson before.

But this is why we have GPS, and other navigation aids.

Rather than speculate on what went wrong, I’m going to instead take this opportunity to wax a bit philosophical on the whole thing.

I fly little airplanes, and if you survive doing that for a while, you gain a healthy respect for the limitations of your airplane, as well as your own personal limitations. When you’re a complete newbie, you tend to view anyone around you with a pilot’s license as superhuman. And you tend to deify your flight instructor, as well. Which sort of makes sense – after all, you are trusting him with your life.

But somewhere along the line you start viewing other plots, and even instructors, as your peers. At present, I’ve been flying for about 1500 hours, so if I go up with an instructor, it’s entirely possibly I’ll have twice as many hours as (s)he does. Which is fine, if (s)he’s experienced enough to be an instructor, I can almost certainly learn something.

But I still tend to view the commercial pilots, with their 100-ton, 600 mph airplanes and thousands of hours of experience, as… well, if not gods, certainly closer to divinity than I am.

But after a few mistaken airports, and crashes on beautiful clear days, I’m starting to wonder. Perhaps they’re only human after all. And maybe I’m kind of silly for ever believing otherwise. But the whole thing is like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real. An epiphany. But a melancholy one.


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