Atlas Air’s internal investigation into how its crew landed a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter at the wrong airport last November has uncovered important factors explaining how the freighter, headed to Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base, mistakenly landed at the smaller Jabara Airport, nine miles to the northeast of the air base.
In a crew-training video obtained by AIN, Atlas Air flight operations vice president Jeff Carlson said that a number of intermittent issues with the first officer’s primary flight display earlier in the night-time flight created some skepticism on the part of the pilots about the reliability of the aircraft’s automation system. Although Wichita’s weather was good, the pilot flying programmed an Rnav/GPS approach to Runway 19L at McConnell that would have placed the aircraft at 3,000 feet over Jabara. According to Carlson, the pilot said previous VFR approaches to McConnell had often put him at a higher altitude than expected and that difficulties in picking out McConnell’s runway prompted him to make an instrument approach.
The two pilots did not brief each other about other area airports or the 19L approach lighting system that could have helped them to verify that they were landing at McConnell. Wichita approach controllers cleared the 747 for the instrument procedure 25 miles out and immediately switched the aircraft to the McConnell tower, which cleared the aircraft to land. The 747 remained on autopilot until passing the initial approach fix, at which time the flying pilot saw a brightly lit runway slightly to his left, which seemed to match what he was searching for.
Believing the aircraft was too high to land safely, the flying pilot disconnected the autopilot and increased the rate of descent toward what he thought was 19L at McConnell but was in fact Runway 18 at Jabara. The pilot monitoring was uncertain about the runway’s identity, but remained silent.
Carlson said the primary reason for the incident was the flying pilot’s late decision to abandon the instrument approach for a visual approach that required him to hand-fly the aircraft, as well as inadequate monitoring by the other pilot. Also mentioned in the video, which Atlas has not released for public viewing, was ATC’s failure to notice the aircraft descending toward the wrong airport.
Atlas Air now requires pilots to remain on an instrument approach procedure–even in visual conditions–until passing the final approach fix.