C-17 Makes Unscheduled Landing at Wrong Airport

Single seat fighter pilots are individually responsible for every action they take with their aircraft.  They have no co-pilot, so everyone — even the youngest Lieutenant fighter pilot — is qualified to make the calls necessary to safely fly their aircraft.

For that reason, fighter pilots sometimes joke that heavy aircraft are “flown by committee,” since every action is a “team” effort among pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, loadmaster, flight attendant, etc.  Still, oftentimes passengers’ lives are at stake and valuable cargo is on board, so perhaps redundancy is called for.

On that note, it seems a certain C-17 team made a poor decision:

A huge military plane from New Jersey may have mistaken the tiny runway at Peter O’ Knight airport for the runway at MacDill Air Force Base…

While the aircraft was from McGuire, some news reports indicated the mission originated in “southwest Asia,” which could have meant the landing was the end of a very long sortie for the crew.  The Air Force described it as an “unscheduled landing” without any maintenance problems, and said an investigation was underway.  It didn’t take much for average onlookers to figure out what happened, though.

The civil Peter O. Knight airport has no control tower, caters to small private airplanes, and is considerably smaller than MacDill:

Peter O. Knight is a general aviation airport operated by the Aviation Authority.

It has two runways, including a smaller one that is 2,688 feet and a larger one that is 3,405 feet. The longest runway at MacDill is 11,421 feet.

But, the runways are oriented in the same direction at each airport, and the Knight runway is a few miles short on MacDill’s final approach course:

After reducing the gross weight a bit, the C-17 took off a few hours later (with runway to spare) and finished its journey to MacDill.

Comments at some sites are incredulous that two Air Force pilots looking out the front window would mistake Knight for MacDill, but as several reports point out, it has happened before (though not military), and similar incidents of mistaken landings have even happened at MacDill. 

Unfortunately, the incident is also happening in a community that has seen some recent landing mishaps that were ultimately blamed on the crew.

The good news is at some point the crew realized they were running out of runway and still managed to stop the aircraft in time.  The bad news is they probably won’t be flying anywhere else for awhile…