Have you ever wondered what would happen if flights landed at the wrong airport?

Given the accuracy with which pilots set out to fly from one airport and land in another, one wonders if there has ever been a time when a pilot mistakenly landed in another airport. If you have ever pondered that, the simple answer to your question is yes. There have been a few occasions when pilots accidentally landed in a different airport from the one they had in mind. Follow us as we take you through a brief history of when pilots accidentally landed in a different airport.

Every now and then, we hear amusing stories of how pilots took off from an airport and, for whatever reason, landed at a different destination different from the one they intended to reach. As unusual as it may sound, it is a reality and has happened a few times. In this article, we at Travel Radar will look back at some historical examples and how they happened. 

If you are a regular follower of Travel Radar, you would have been used to reading stories of different airport rules, planes making an emergency landing at airports, and airlines diverting to a different airport. In contrast, these kinds of stories are not unusual. However, landing at the wrong airport is unusual and rare.

The stories from the U.S.

Between July 2012 and November 2014, there were five cases of airplanes landing at the wrong destination. These occurrences led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to recommend changes to U.S. air traffic control procedures to avoid future problems involving aircraft landing on shorter-than-expected runways, especially at night.

The NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should require controllers to withhold landing clearance until an aircraft has passed all the airports that could be mistaken for its destination. According to the NTSB, all the wrong landings occurred in areas where multiple airports lie within 10 miles (16 km) of each other.

In November 2013, Atlas Air Flight 4241 left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas. However, the 747-cargo plane mistakenly landed at James Jabara Airport, just about 5 miles from McConnell Air Force Base, after the two-member flight crew failed to identify their destination correctly.

A similar incident occurred when Southwest Airlines Flight 4013 took off from Chicago-Midway International Airport on January 12, 2014, headed for a 7,140-foot (2,176 meters) runway at Branson Airport, near Springfield, Missouri. However, the plane landed on a 3,738-foot runway, six miles away from the intended destination, after being wrongly directed there by air traffic controllers.

image 1 - Travel Radar - Aviation News
Southwest Airlines 737 (N284WN) taxis at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington County, Virginia | © Wikimedia Commons

U.K. occurrences

Pilots landing at the wrong airport seems more like a scene from Hollywood than reality. However, it does occur and isn’t endemic to just the USA. There have been a few occurrences involving the U.K. too. In March 2019, A British Airways flight headed for Dusseldorf in Germany mistakenly landed at Edinburgh airport in Scotland. A Howler? The flight’s passengers only realized they were in the wrong country when the plane landed in the Scottish capital and heard the welcome announcement with the phrase “Welcome to Edinburgh.”

The plane remained on the tarmac until it was cleared to fly to Germany. While many of the passengers onboard the flight were worried by the error, others took to Twitter to comment on the funny side of the situation.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/British_Airways?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@British_Airways</a> can you please explain how can my morning flight taking off from LCY to Dusseldorf land in Edinburgh 😅? While an interesting concept, I don’t think anyone on board has signed up for this mystery travel lottery… <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BA3271?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BA3271</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/frequenttravel?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#frequenttravel</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/britishairways?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#britishairways</a></p>&mdash; Son Tran (@sontrantuan) <a href=”https://twitter.com/sontrantuan/status/1110107475368464385?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>March 25, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Another similar occurrence involving the U.K. happened on the soil of the United Kingdom. Pan American World Airways Boeing 707 flying from Tokyo to London-Heathrow through Hong Kong and Frankfurt ended up touching down at RAF Northolt (10km) from its intended destination due to confusion regarding the runway orientation. 

Similar occurrences across the globe

The phenomenon of an aircraft landing at the wrong airport isn’t peculiar to the U.K. and the USA. It has happened several times outside the U.K. and USA. A similar incident occurred in Indonesia in 2012 when a Sriwijaya Air flight from Medan landed in a military airfield that hadn’t been used for more than a decade instead of its intended destination, Minangkabau International Airport in Western Sumatra. Again, in 2015, an AirAsia flight bound for Malaysia from Sydney flew passengers around the country before eventually landing in Melbourne. The mistake was blamed on the pilots who had entered the wrong coordinates and didn’t realize they had not left the Australian Airspace.

image 2 - Travel Radar - Aviation News
AirAsia India A320 Neo Aircraft| © Wikimedia Commons

A long history of pilots landing at the wrong airports

The phenomenon of pilots landing at the wrong airport isn’t just a recent theme in the history of aviation. Perhaps, the most famous of such occurrences occurred in 1938 when American aviator Douglas Corrigan took off from Brooklyn, New York, headed for Long Beach in California, and landed the following morning in Dublin, Ireland. The incident earned him the nickname “Wrong Way Corrigan,” and he is perhaps, to this day, the most famous pilot that landed at the wrong airport and in the wrong country. Corrigan later blamed the mishap on the navigational error and low-light condition. He claimed that the navigational error was caused by heavy cloud cover that obscured landmarks and that the low-light condition made him misread his compass.

Summary

Many incidents of airplanes landing at the wrong airport have been attributed to pilots relying on sight rather than software and navigation tools. The analysis of the incidents by A.P. shows that nighttime occurrences were more common than daytime occurrences. It often happens when pilots are attracted by the runway lights of the first airport when they begin their descent. While such occurrences are not in any way actions from a movie scene, we can rest assured that they do not occur regularly.

Have you been aboard a flight that landed at the wrong airport before? We will like to know your reaction. Please drop your comment below.

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