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Airline Crew Nearly Lands On Wrong Side Of The PAPIs

Do you brief which side of the runway PAPI lights should appear on? Here's what can go wrong in low-vis conditions if you don't...

Live from the Flight Deck

Airline Pilot Nearly Lands On The Wrong Side Of The PAPIs

We found the following NASA ASRS report written by a regional airline crew flying a CRJ a few years ago. Low clouds and reduced visibility could lead any pilot to make the same mistake...

During preparation to land on Runway 21 at KMSN, the weather was reported at 300 feet overcast, fog, 1/2 mile of visibility, and snow. Braking action was reported as good to fair, with snow covering the runway. During the briefing, the Captain didn't cover the PAPI location or the fact that the LOC was slightly offset for the approach. It was a quick briefing since we'd both flown into KMSN during the trip and were familiar with the airport. In hindsight, I should have clarified where we'd expect the lighting systems to be if the runway came into sight.

On short final, I got the approach lights in-sight right above minimums and called "approach lights in sight, continue." As we broke out in foggy/snowy conditions, the Captain transitioned to visual flying. He made a turn, aiming for the left side of the PAPIs. Just seconds later, we were crossing the runway threshold with no part of the airplane over the paved runway surface. The PAPIs were on the left side of the runway, not the right. With low visibility, the PAPIs were the brightest lights and it was difficult to tell where the runway was, being covered in snow.

I called a go-around and the Captain looked startled. I forcefully said "we're not over the runway, go around." After a successful go-around, we quickly de-briefed what went wrong. Between the confusion over the PAPI location and the offset LOC, a split-second decision at minimums nearly led to us missing the runway entirely.

"Missing The Runway" Is Rare, But It Does Happen

Earlier this year a similar situation happened to an airline crew landing in low visibility at the Presque Isle Airport, Maine. But this time, they actually missed the runway entirely according to the NTSB. Snow, fog, a circling approach, and stress/confusion a previous missed approach led to a series of errors resulting in, fortunately, a non-fatal accident.

Without the full report, it's hard to tell if the crew made a similar mistake, confusing the location of the runway based on ground lighting. Regardless, they missed the runway and lost both sets of main landing gear in deep snow. Challenging outside visual conditions and an obscured runway contributed to this accident.


What You Can Do

During your approach briefing, especially in low IFR conditions, pay extra attention to briefing what you expect to see when you break out at minimums. Where will the runway be in relation to lights? Is there an offset LOC? At what point will you disconnect the autopilot?

These are all things that can help you avoid similar mistakes. And if you're aligned with the wrong runway, it's another way to tell that something is wrong. Beyond just reading words from the approach plate, make an effort to picture what you'll see as the runway comes into sight. Pay attention to your navigation guidance. Even with the autopilot off, you shouldn't ignore approach navaids. And if a crew member does call a go-around, treat it as an action, not a decision point.


What can pilots do to prevent similar accidents? 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, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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