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How Could You Accidentally Land On The Wrong Runway?

Ever have the feeling you might be lined up for the wrong runway? Something doesn't feel quite right. But you're not sure...

You're not alone. Every pilot has had this feeling at some point in time. The news media makes it look like you'd have to be a total idiot to land on the wrong runway. But, every month, it happens. And most, if not all of those pilots, weren't total idiots. They just made a mistake.

So, what are the chances you join that exclusive group?

Nobody answers that question with "probably me." But we'll look at a flight, from the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System, where a competent pilot lined up on the wrong runway.

What would you have done differently?

The Flight, And The Landing

The flight happened at Buchanan Field in Concord, California. Buchanan has two sets of runways: 32 Right and Left, and 01 Right and Left. The pilot had flown with an instructor at the field, working on his complex endorsement. But he had always used 01 Left / 19 Right. And then, due to maintenance and weather, he hadn't flown for a few months.

He departed for a local flight, taking off on runway 32 Left. When he returned, tower asked him to join a two mile right downwind entry for runway 32 Right, following another aircraft on downwind.

The pilot saw another aircraft, but felt the aircraft was low, and turned to follow. From tower's perspective, the pilot joined a base leg entry. The problem was, the pilot didn't have the correct aircraft in sight, and he was on downwind for the wrong runway.

He felt something wasn't right, and on final, he asked tower if he was lined up for the correct runway. Tower responded: the controller didn't have him in sight, but asked if he was flying northwest. The transmission may have been blocked, because the pilot never heard it.

Then, the pilot realized he was lined up for 01 Left, but felt he was too low to go around. He continued landing, telling the tower he was landing on 01 Left.

Tower instructed the pilot to go-around. There were vehicles near the runway, and another aircraft landing on 32 Left. The pilot didn't hear the transmission.

Tower instructed the aircraft landing on 32 Left to go around, and they did. The errant pilot rolled out on 01 Left without incident.

What Went Wrong?

So, what went wrong here? You can break this down into three phases. First, the pilot felt confused. He wasn't sure he was set up for the correct runway.

Second, he realized he was on the wrong runway, while he was still in the air. This phase was quick, but he still had time to make a decision and change his course of action.

And third, he landed on the wrong runway. Let's start with phase one.

Fixing The Problem, Before It Happens

Every pilot has felt a little unsure of their runway at some point in time. And, in this situation, the pilot did ask tower for help. But he asked too late in the game.

Even if you can't contact tower, you do have other help. Your instruments.

Help In The Cockpit: Your Instruments

Your heading indicator is a great place to start. When you're on downwind, it should be the reverse of your runway, considering wind correction.

And, on final, it should line up with the runway, considering wind correction.

Check your heading indicator for runway alignment every time you turn final - it's a technique that everyone can use.

And, if there's an instrument approach to the runway, you can always tune that in, even if you aren't instrument rated.

With ForeFlight and other EFBs, you can download approach charts to your iPad, so you can always find out if a runway has an instrument approach.

This technique works so well that airlines, like ExpressJet, require you to set up the final approach course, even on a visual approach.

As you're on final, you can confirm you're lined up for the correct runway. If the needle is centered, you're flying to the correct runway. It's a great habit to get into. But, not every runway has an instrument approach.

New avionics systems, like the Garmin G1000 NXi, has the ability to load a visual approach to nearly any runway. The procedure provides lateral guidance, and sometimes a vertical glide path. And that lateral guidance is another way to confirm you're lined up with the correct runway.

These techniques only work if you make them a habit. Add in some exhaustion after a long flight, a night landing, or an unfamiliar field, and the habit may be the one thing that keeps you on the correct runway. It's just like verifying your gear are down. Set up a procedure, and follow it every time.

And, if you're ever in doubt, or you discover you're lined up for the wrong runway, immediately go around. Then, let tower know where you are. You're a collision hazard either way, but tower doesn't expect you to land. Going around provides the least risk of hitting something on the ground.

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