AIN Blog: How Wrong-airport Landings Could Happen and How They Can Be Prevented

 - January 14, 2014, 12:18 AM
Branson airports
On final to Branson Airport in WingX Pro7 (X-Plane simulation). The iPad moving map makes it easy to see the location of the destination airport.

Look, it could happen to any of us. Landing at the wrong airport is not that hard.

It happened again Sunday evening, when a Southwest Airlines 737-700 made a relatively short landing at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport (KPLK) in Branson, Mo. (actually one mile south of downtown Branson), six miles north of the destination airport, Branson Airport (KBBG). This is the second recent wrong-airport landing by a large commercial airplane. A Boeing Dreamlifter cargo carrier operated by Atlas Air landed at the wrong airport in Wichita in November. They were headed for McConnell Air Force Base (KIAB) but landed at smaller Jabara Airport (KAAO), nine miles northeast of the intended destination.

It’s interesting how similar these incidents are; both happened at night, both involved destinations that were large airports with long runways and a landing at an uncontrolled airport, and both aircraft had moving maps on their flight displays.

But I’m pretty sure that these moving maps don’t include charts, which is an interesting factor. Moving maps are terrific tools, but situational awareness is vastly improved when the moving map is overlaying an actual chart. When you can see your little airplane flying over the chart, along airways, past little airport and navaid symbols and then, as you near the destination, on the actual approach plate itself, well that’s just a little slice of situational-awareness heaven.

And that is the beauty of the tablet computer, whether an Apple iPad or Android device, with a GPS source and a moving-map app such as ForeFlight Mobile, Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck, Garmin Pilot, WingX, Avilution, take your pick. For a few hundred dollars, you have a wonderful tool that, used as backup, can supplement the real (certified) avionics in the panel. The tablet could even act as an emergency device if the panel goes dark. Just add an external AHRS device, and you have an excellent backup attitude indicator or even, with the Xavion iPad app, an EFIS and moving-map glidepath guide to the nearest runway end in case of all-engine failure.

I don’t pretend to know what happened to the two flight crews involved in these wrong-airport landings, although during an experiment with X-Plane on my computer, it was easy to see that the lights at Clark Downtown, just to the left of the nose of the airplane, were far brighter than the distant lights of Branson Airport. Easy mistake. From 10 miles on final to Runway 19L at McConnell AFB, the bright lights at Jabara, almost in line with the flight path, look awfully compelling.

What if these pilots were equipped with iPads with moving-map apps? Would this have helped?

Looking at the images from the moving-map apps ForeFlight and WingX Pro7, I can see exactly where my airplane is in relation to the airport I’m trying to land at. (I used these two apps for this experiment because they allow simulation of the aircraft’s position on X-Plane without any special equipment.)

Oh, but wait. There’s a fly in the ointment. The FAA doesn’t allow own-ship position display on tablet apps used in the cockpits of commercially flown aircraft. That’s why all the apps have a setting to turn off own-ship position display. For some reason, the FAA doesn’t think it’s a good idea to supplement situational awareness with capable tools like these apps.

I know that iPads and Android devices aren’t and probably never will be FAA certified, but the benefit of own-ship display on an actual chart is overwhelming, and the FAA is hopelessly behind the technology curve on this issue.

In any case, I bet that most pilots don’t turn off the own-ship display, no matter what they are flying, unless there’s is an FAA inspector in the jump seat. I wonder if the pilots in these wrong-airport incidents wish they had iPads in their cockpits? Southwest Airlines is planning to equip its pilots with tablets this year, including charting applications and even taking advantage of the airline’s Global Eagle Entertainment (Row 44) airborne Internet access system to obtain weather updates, notams and so on. But I will be surprised if Southwest asks the FAA to allow pilots to turn on own-ship position display on their tablets.

Ironically, now that Southwest allows passengers to remain logged in to its airborne Internet system and use tablets and smartphones from takeoff to touchdown, any passenger who was logged on to Southwest’s flight tracker could have watched live as they landed at the wrong airport. Something that, oddly, the FAA won’t allow the pilots to do. 


The author has answered his own question. Until the FAA gets its head out of its #ss on own ship displays for air carriers, nothing will change.

If the airlines do what my last company did they may not have all the fancy charts and map display info for the moving maps other than basic IFR data. Most of the other data is optional and since the FAA will not allow use of that data as stand alone, most companies will not pay extra for it.

I have come close on several occasions where I almost landed at an airport close to the destination but was the wrong airport. Fortunately my FO was able to point out my error and prevent the mistake.

One reason to limit iPad ship position display is the lack of fault detection; on "non-approved" programs. I've seen the comforting airplane symbol mysteriously wander away from the airway...on the iPad but not on the FMS. Disconcerting, and a bit of a challenge to belive the 'blind' FMS rather than that pretty moving map.

That ties to the other factor: in the pressurized jets that I've flown, GPS reception and position can, on occasion be a bit sketchy.  I've used remote GPS windshield sensors (just for advisory--often the earlier iPad one did not work) and even it can be taxed at times--the ipad GPS can be weak through a heated windhield, or perahps if a post gets in the way. I've also seen an "FAA Approved" unit be several hundred feet off while taxiing.

Another reason is a concern that pilots will use the moving map to navigate with...and have an over-developed faith and reliance in just such conditions--night and lower visibility--in a system that does not have fault detection and exclusion.

Of course, this still doesn't completely explain the wrong-airport landings. Perhaps a rush to visually sight the airport is a part of it. I've often thought that the night or marginal condition visual approach is one of the most hazardous we use--heck, and ILS is "simple" in its room for error by comparison. It's always a vital habit to back up and confirm even your certain conclusions--for that one time you might be wrong.

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