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Ever Land At The Wrong Airport? It’s An Easier Mistake Than You Think

FAAST Blast newsletter updates FAA’s safety efforts on “wrong-surface” gaffes

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Your Friendly Aviation Administration brings some useful and valuable assets to your effort to stay up to date with enhancing safety and making you a better pilot. The FAA Safety Team—or FAASTeam—produces a weekly round-up known as the FAAST Blast. As inbox stuffers go, it’s often well worth the click.

Last week’s update included news of GA Safety award winners; the start of the annual GA/Charter activity survey (their best guess on how much we’re flying); and a video on the value of flying clubs. There was also a short video on how to avoid landing at the wrong airport.

Like most pilots, you might chuckle at embarrassing stories of wrong-airport landings. But the video illustrates how, like forgetting to extend the landing gear, “…it could happen to you.” Over the course of the tutorial, it makes it surprisingly clear how.

The narrative starts with the recognition that, even with advanced avionics that can nail your exact position down to the breadth of the proverbial gnat’s ass, pilots are still making approaches and even landing at the wrong airport. And it occurs under VFR and IFR conditions.

But why?

The FAA points out that around many cities and large towns, there can be multiple airports within a few miles of each other. And often they have similar, if not identical, runway configurations. Complex airspace, machine-gun ATC exchanges, lack of familiarity with the area and other distractions, can lead to pilots losing situational awareness.

Visual of airports surrounding Wichita that look similar.

One particularly nefarious scenario is an IFR approach with a similar airport directly under the approach path. This is a situation where confirmation bias can become powerful. The pilot is really looking for that welcoming runway, and it can be tempting to mentally latch onto the first big fat one they see.

The consequences of picking the wrong airport, whether the pilot lands or not, range from simple embarrassment to one or more serious safety breaches. Maybe the runway is a lot shorter than expected. Or there could be traffic on the runway, a crossing runway, or in the pattern that’s unaware of your aircraft bearing down on the runway.

The video recommends some tips to ensure you don’t make this mistake. While flight planning, review charts for airports nearby your destination that might be easily mistaken for the bull’s eye. Make a mental picture of prominent landmarks and their orientation to the airport—cities, rivers, lakes, highways and topographical features. Check the airport diagram for the location of terminals, hangars and even runway lighting features to confirm you actually are where you think you are. And don’t be too quick to quit monitoring all those whizz-bang avionics just because you think you’ve got the runway in sight. (I.e.: Don’t announce to ATC that you have the runway in sight until you are 100% sure it’s the right one.)

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As the FAA video points out in the video voiceover, “Avoiding landing at the wrong airport makes flying more efficient; and fun.”

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