Expectations and fixation

My first flight lesson was out of Virginia’s Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO), inside the Dulles Class B airspace. We took off and performed some air work in the practice area. Then we headed back toward the airport. My instructor told me to find the airport so he could show me how to do a pattern entry. I looked and looked but I could not spot little Leesburg Airport. Finally I told him, “I can’t find the airport. It’s too small!”

My instructor was a recent émigré from New Delhi, India. In his most patient Indian-accented English he replied, “It is not the fault of the airport that you cannot see it. It is exactly the size it needs to be.”

For the record, I did have a VFR sectional. I knew where Leesburg was supposed to be and I knew it should be smaller than Dulles. But I’d never flown out of a small airport before, only major hubs, so I expected Leesburg to look like Dulles or Atlanta or Chicago Midway, except smaller. When I didn’t see what I expected to see, I failed to see anything. Expectation, my first mistake.

When my instructor kept pressing me to locate Leesburg Airport, I began to fixate on finding a smaller version of Dulles somewhere among the farms of Loudon County, Virginia. When he finally showed me where Leesburg was, I was shocked at how different it looked from Dulles. Fixation, my second problem.

The reverse also happens. Pilots have been known to fixate on the first airport that meets their expectation. The result? Wrong airport landings.

The NASA/Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) archives cite 38 examples of attempted or actual wrong airport landings. Not that that’s any solace to the unfortunate Dreamlifter crew that recently landed at Col Jabara Airport, 9 miles north of their actual destination, McConnell AFB near Wichita, Kansas.

Their mistake seems almost unfathomable in an era of crew resource management, pinpoint GPS navigation and redundancy. And thanks to the omnipresence of cameras, server farms and the World Wide Web, their blunder could live on infinitely longer than the former most famous wrong airport landing.

That occurred in 1938 when American aviator Douglas Corrigan arrived at Baldonnel Aerodrome in Dublin, Ireland, instead of Long Beach, Calif. He had departed from Brooklyn, N.Y. He was dubbed “Wrong Way” Corrigan, although historians maintain Ireland was always his intended destination. Numerous times the American Bureau of Air Commerce had denied his request for a transatlantic crossing permit. Numerous times he had rebuilt his aircraft in order to comply with the government’s definition of “airworthy.” His contemporaries said he was fixated on duplicating Lindbergh’s 1927 flight.

These more recent 38 pilots had simpler goals: Complete their flights successfully. All admitted to flying in visual meteorological conditions, whether day or night. All were talking to ATC. All called “the field in sight” and continued on the approach. A few aborted at the last moment. Most landed successfully, unaware they were at the wrong airport. Afterward, all declared “loss of situational awareness” as the culprit.

Loss of situational awareness is more than vertigo or a cloud layer or a partial panel anomaly. It can be as simple as expecting your airport to look like a ginormous patch of cement adorned with long white lines in your windscreen. One pilot reported seeing a ginormous patch of cement adorned with long white lines in front of him, so he told ATC he had the airport in sight. Except he didn’t. He had the parking lot of an abandoned mall in sight. He was less than a hundred feet from touchdown before realizing his mistake.

That pilot was expecting a particular sight picture and when he saw it, he fixated on it. Preliminary reports indicate the Dreamlifter crew fell victim to a similar mental trap. Here’s how:

KIAB runways 19L and 19R are 12,000 feet long by 150 feet wide, giving an aspect ratio of 80. KAAO runway 18 is 6,101 feet long by 100 feet wide, giving an aspect ratio of 60.

KIAB has a 3,000-foot ALSF1 lighting system leading to runway 19R. That’s a 1:4 lead-in lights to runway relationship. KAAO has a 2,400-foot MALSR dazzle display pointing toward runway 18, also roughly 1:4. The magnetic alignment difference between runways at both airports is only 10°.

So at altitude, on a clear night, similar aspect ratios, similar runway alignment and similar ILS lighting system relationships could look virtually identical to the ol’ Mark 1 eyeball. KAAO isn’t even depicted on the NOAA KIAB runway ILS 19 approach chart.

Ultimately, landing at the incorrect airport is not against the FARs. It’s just embarrassing, right?

All those errant pilots made good landings even if to the wrong field — especially the Dreamlifter crew, who successfully landed a jet requiring 7,000 feet of stopping distance on a runway 1,000 feet shorter. No burnt out brakes. No tire fires. No runway overrun. The next day another crew even flew the Dreamlifter out of KAAO and into KIAB.

If one defines a great landing as the kind you walk away from and the plane can also be used again, then…

Then what about this excerpt from a near midair collision report also filed under Wrong Airport Landing:

“After making a traffic pattern position report on 122.8, my student and I were turning from base to final at Lakewood Airport when I spotted something shimmering in my peripheral vision. Instinctively I took the airplane from my student, broke off the approach and initiated a go-round. Glancing back to the runway, I saw that the shimmering object was another airplane just then touching down.”

Turns out the other pilot thought he was at Ocean County instead of Lakewood, 10 miles to the north. Both airports have the same runway 6/24 alignment. That pilot had no idea he’d almost caused a catastrophe because he had been on 122.7 and his high-wing aircraft had blocked his view of the plane he’d cut off.

This is a cautionary tale of the real hazard behind misidentifying and landing at the wrong airport — injury or death.

Maybe the rumors are true. Maybe the FAA will soon create two new inbound fixes to KIAB — COORR and IGANN to aid the SA-challenged in that airspace. But that cannot be done on every approach to every airport.

That’s why I teach my students to approach the approach skeptically. “What’s wrong with this picture?” is the question I teach them to ask themselves every time they fly into an airport environment.

I think the 38 pilots in the NASA/ASRS database who pulled a Corrigan and lived to tell about it would agree. A healthy dose of skepticism on the approach keeps expectation and fixation out of the cockpit.


  1. Joseph says

    You know this brings to mind, how much would it cost to paint the Airport Identifier just beyond the numbers? I suppose the real cost would be in changing the regulations for airport markings and the related learning material. But seems it would help at least in VFR conditions.

  2. Otto Keesling says

    It appears that many are not interested the the bill before congress, to eleminate the Class II physical (HR3708). Passing of this bill would be a tremendous shoot in the GA arm. It just makes sense seeing that pilots are self certifing now. Hopefully everyone will contact the sponsoring congressman and ask them to continue in their efforts.

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