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Airline Crew Catches Aircraft Mix-Up Before Taking Off

Airline pilots often fly different aircraft multiple times a day. And when they do, they're trying to balance making an on-time departure, and guaranteeing that the aircraft is pre-flighted and completely ready to go. Here's a great example where a crew, with passengers already on board, caught a mix-up on the ground that would have caused major problems had they taken off.

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Airline Crew: Boarding The Wrong Airplane

The following NASA ASRS report was written by an airline pilot in 2014:

Upon arrival at the airport around 6am in the morning, we checked our company paperwork and airport departure boards to find the jet we'd be flying that morning. Both the paperwork and electronic monitors showed Gate 2 as our departure gate. Being the first flight of the day, we got to the airplane quickly to accomplish all of the required first-flight checks. The First Officer was at the airplane before me and finishing his walkaround as I unpacked my bags in the cabin and cockpit.

Eager to get the first flight out early, the gate agents asked if they could start pre-boarding early, and no crew members had a problem with it. During the boarding process, I pulled out the aircraft maintenance book and began comparing the MELs and write-ups to items listed on our dispatch release. This was the first thing I did as my First Officer got the flight plan set up in the FMS. Something wasn't adding up. The MELs listed on our release didn't match any MELs in the airplane or logbook. I asked the First Officer if he was seeing the same problem and we quickly realized that the release did not match the tail number of our jet. While the logbook was correct for the tail number, it was the incorrect airplane for our flight.

Apparently the night before, ground crews had switched the placement of two identical jets with different tail numbers and put them into the wrong gates. That's why our gate information was correct, but it was the wrong airplane. I called dispatch and asked if we could switch the tail numbers between the two flights to avoid de-planing. Nope. One was scheduled for a maintenance check later in the day and needed to follow it's scheduling routing.

Everything told us we should've been pre-flighting an airplane at Gate 2, paperwork, departure boards, and gate agents. In the end, we were left wondering if we were truly responsible for this mistake. Was it ground crew from the night before? Was it the gate agents' fault? Should we have done a better job noticing the tail number change before boarding? Everyone seemed to play a role in this mixup and we only found the mistake once we checked the aircraft logbooks. If we hadn't noticed this mistake and took off with the wrong tail number and no verification of maintenance write-ups on our release, this would've been a major FAA violation.

Have You Ever Found Maintenance Log Problems?

What's the worst discrepancy you've ever noticed? What's your advice for pilots flying an airplane for the first time, possibly from a new FBO or flight school? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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