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Crew Cancels IFR And Lands At The Wrong Airport

Tom??s Del Coro

What leads an ATP-rated crew to land at the wrong airport, over 30 miles away? This mistake could happen to anyone under the right circumstances. Here's what happened...

The Report

An ATP-rated corporate jet crew with thousands of hours in-type landed at the wrong airport, 30 miles from their destination, without a clearance from ATC after canceling IFR. Under the right circumstances and without the right approach technique, a situation like this could happen to anyone. Here's what we found from this NASA ASRS Report...

On IFR flight plan going to TVI, ATC gave us a descent to 4000 ft and asked us to advise the airport in sight. It was late afternoon and the sun was just on the horizon and directly on our nose. Forward visibility was greatly restricted as the sun was somewhat blinding. We were at 4000 ft and looking for the airport, which we saw on our nose about 3-5 miles out. We advised the airport in sight about 5 miles out at 12 o'clock and told ATC we could cancel IFR.

TVI is a non-towered field and we wanted to transition to Unicom to check traffic and advise our position and intentions. We were talking to Valdosta approach. Valdosta said "roger, squawk VFR and frequency change approved." We were somewhat rushed to get the airplane slowed, configured, and established. We entered the traffic pattern, announced our position, completed the approach and landing checklists and turned final. We announced our position on final twice, searched for conflicting traffic, and landed.

After landing and taxing to the FBO, we realized that we had landed at VLD instead of TVI, a towered Class D airport. Immediately upon realizing this we called Valdosta tower and told them of our mistake. This was our error: We were looking into the sun and misidentified VLD as TVI. One contributing factors was ATC descending us to 4000 ft so far from our destination and asking us to report the airport in sight. We were well beyond visual range of TVI, but within visual range of VLD. It would have also been helpful had ATC questioned our advising airport in sight when we were beyond visual range, or at least told us to contact Valdosta Tower as we were very close to their airspace. But, had we taken extra steps to positively identify the airport this event would have not happened.

Tom??s Del Coro

Contributing Factor: Glare

You've probably experienced your fair share of glare-related issues in the cockpit. It might not be something you've thought of as a danger, but it can dramatically reduce your overall situational awareness.

It's significant enough that the FAA published a study called: "Evaluation of Glare as a Hazard for General Aviation Pilots on Final Approach"

Swayne Martin

In this case, glare from the sun made it difficult for the crew to spot their destination so far away. When they saw an airport directly in front of them, they assumed it was KTVI, which brings us to the next contributing factor...

Contributing Factor: Expectation Bias

Since ATC prompted this crew to spot their destination airport in front of them for a visual approach, they were expecting the airport to be closer than it actually was. Assuming that they had the correct airport in-sight, they canceled IFR and proceeded visuall to the wrong airport.

Expectation bias is a threat to all pilots. When we expect to hear or see something, our minds have a tendency to convince us that we've accomplished the stated goal.

Contributing Factor: CTAF Communications

Assuming they were about to land at KTVI, a non-towered airport, the crew began broadcasting their intentions over CTAF. Since they didn't hear anything from other traffic, they assumed that no one was in the pattern. In reality, they were well within Class D airspace. There was no way for them to hear the control tower with the wrong frequency tuned-in.


Contributing Factor: Visual Approach Not "Backed Up"

One of the easiest ways to make sure you're lined up with the right runway (and airport) is by backing up a visual approach with an instrument approach. And in addition to that, it gives you the confidence that you're not getting too low, especially when you're miles from the runway, where it can be hard to see the VASI/PAPI. At the very least, confirm the headings are correct for the runway you're aligned to. In this case, runway numbers between KVLD and KTVI did not match.

When you back yourself up with a precision approach for the visual, you know that you're lined up with the right runway, at the right airport. Plus, you get the added benefit of a constant glide path all the way to the runway, which makes your approach more stable all the way down.

Even if there's only a non-precision approach for your runway, follow the altitudes along the final approach course, and you'll set yourself up for a safe descent. On top of that, you'll be well clear of obstacles during your descent.


What Else Could You Do To Prevent A Similar Situation?

Mistakes happen, especially under time pressure during a last-minute visual approach with the sun in your face. What would you do to prevent yourself from making a similar mistake? Tell us in the comments below.

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