Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw
Most of the world's news channels have enjoyed the story of the Boeing Dreamlifter landing at the wrong airport last week. Boeing's modified 747 cargo plane - reputedly the most voluminous cargo plane on the planet - is used to carry 787 Dreamliner aircraft parts from one factory to another. Whilst on one of its delivery runs, the pilots mistook one airport for another, and landed in the wrong place - about 16 kilometres away from their intended destination. Not a big deal, except that the runway where they landed was a tad on the short side. Aircraft need to have enough runway to land - and take off again. Generally, landing uses less runway than taking off. The runway at which this misfortuned crew landed was officially 'too short' for the aircraft to depart from, based on the 'handbook'. To make matters worse, the aircraft needed a special ground handling vehicle to facilitate its manoeuvring - just turning such a large aircraft is a challenge - made more challenging by the very narrow, relatively speaking, runway that they had put down on. At the airport where they landed no such vehicle was available. Not a big deal, just drive one up from the actual destination - just a 16km jaunt... except that that vehicle broke down on the way to the rescue! It should be noted that even at its top speed the support team would take over an hour to go the distance. All part of the adventure and learning process - and nobody got hurt, and no damage done - at least to the team involved. Apparently, some cars ran into each other on the main road near the airport, when drivers were distracted by the sight of such a large aircraft on the tarmac!
Finally, the tug arrived, the aircraft was positioned and some careful calculations later the massive 'whale of the air' departed on, what may well be, the shortest flight of a 747 in the history of cargo flight - from one of the shortest runways! The accidental runway was only 2000m long - about 1000m shorter than would be acceptable for a 'recommended departure'. A fresh crew were flown in to make the trip (a big word for a 16km flight with 5km of runway involved between the two aerodromes), and they carried out a lot of calculations to make sure that their departure would be safe. All the same, the police did close down nearby roads in case of the aircraft being rather low over the road, and to avoid any more 'distracted driver accidents'. All in all, a rescue mission that worked, without incident, and ends this particular story of 'wrong place landing' with a smile. It is a nice story about aviation that has grabbed the worlds attention, and diverted it from the more depressing news of the week.
In all honesty, landing at the wrong airport is not totally unexpected. Especially in places where airports are pretty close together. In Ghana you would be hard pressed to mistake Kumasi for Accra or Takoradi for Wa! They are far apart, and totally different in appearance. In some parts of the world the airport density is high - and the runways can even be aligned - I have misidentified airports in the past - but not landed at the wrong one - YET! From the sky, especially in reduced visibility, it can be easy to mistake one for another - it really can. In the past, a passenger aircraft from the USA has over-flown its expected destination of Paris, France - and landed in Brussels, Belgium by mistake! Well, the pilots fell asleep and woke up looking at the wrong country! It is always embarrassing when mistakes like this occur - and even more so in aviation - because we expect aviators to 'always get it right'. It is worth noting that aviators do generally get it right, and therefore, when they get it wrong, it makes news. What is worth noting in this case is 'they got it wrong, they admitted their mistakes, they fixed it, nobody and nothing was damaged' (well, apart from a bank balance and some egos!). Best of all, they shared it with the world to learn from!
In the newsworthy story of the big-Boeing, there is much to learn. The radio transcript clearly indicates the crew and air traffic teams were questioning the airport - but the 'false positives' for the pilot and his first officer were enough for them to commit to their mistake. We have all had this happen to us. We think that all the signs are right, that we are on the right road, the people around us are making the right noises - and then we realise 'uh uh' we got it wrong. Driving around central Accra is always like that for me! Never base your navigation in Accra around the Kofi Brokeman sellers - they all look the same!
We have all taken a wrong turn - physical, mental or financial - and the key to recovery and a safe return to normal operations is 'identification of the error'. The sooner we identify the error and take corrective action, the better. At times we have committed to an error and have to land (hopefully without incident). Then we need to plan the 'departure from the wrong place in our lives'. It cannot be rushed - we will have to spend some time in the 'wrong place', we must call upon our friends to come with their tugs to help us reposition ourselves ready for take off. We must make our calculations for a safe departure - and we may have to manage the potential risks from having to use a runway that is not as long as we would like. We may have to change our crew around us - or even reduce our load enough to ensure safe operations. Most importantly, we must continue to head towards our destination - and never accept that landing 16km short is 'good enough'. We must push on, keep our aims and ambitions clear in our minds, overcome the challenges, make it happen - and then look back and learn how to avoid such a thing happening again.
Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics (www.waasps.com www.medicineonthemove.org e-mail email@example.com)