I Too Landed at the Wrong Airport

As a professional in underwater diving, and an amateur airman, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the causes of accidents and “near-misses”. If you’re reading this in early 2014, you are no doubt aware of several recent incidents of commercial and military jets landing at the wrong airport. In the latest case there was a potential for massive casualties, but disaster was averted at the last possible moment.

As they say, to err is human. From my own experience, I know the truth of that adage in science, medicine, diving, and the subject of this posting, aviation. Pilot errors catch everyone’s attention because we, the public, know that such errors could personally inconvenience us, or worse. But lesser known are the sometimes subtle factors that cause human error.

I can honestly tell you  exactly what I was doing and thinking that caused errors at the very end of long flights. Those errors, none of which were particularly dangerous or newsworthy, were nonetheless caused by the same elements that have been discovered in numerous fatal accidents. Namely, what I was seeing, was not at all what I thought I was seeing.

The small but capable Cessna 150B.

Long before the advent of GPS navigation, cell phones and electronic charts,  I was flying myself and an Army friend (we had both been in Army ROTC at Georgia Tech) from Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD to Georgia. I was dropping him off in Atlanta at Peachtree-Dekalb Airport, and then I would fly down to Thomasville in Southwest Georgia where my young wife awaited me.

Since it was February most of the planned six hour flight was at night. We couldn’t take-off until we both got off duty on a Friday.

I had planned the flight meticulously, but I had not counted on the fuel pumps being shut down at our first planned refueling spot. After chatting with some local aviators about the closest source of fuel, we took off on a detour to an airport some thirty miles distant. That unplanned detour was stressful, as I was not entirely sure we’d find fuel when we arrived. Fortunately, we were able to tank up, and continue on our slow journey. We were flying in my 2-seat Cessna 150, and traveling no faster than about 120 mph, so the trip to Atlanta was a fatiguing and dark flight.

As we eventually neared Atlanta, I was reading the blue, yellow and green paper sectional charts under the glow of red light from the overhead cabin lamp. Lights of the Peachtree-Dekalb airport were seemingly close at hand, surrounded by a growing multitude of other city lights. Happy that I was finally reaching Atlanta, I called the tower and got no answer. No matter, it was late, and many towers shut down operations  fairly early, about 10 PM or so. So I announced my position and intentions, and landed.

The runway was in the orientation I had expected, and my approach to landing was just as I had planned. However, as I taxied off the runway, I realized the runway environment was not as complex as it should have been. We taxied back and forth for awhile trying to sort things out, before I realized I’d landed 18 nautical miles short of my planned destination.

My unplanned refueling stop in South Carolina placed me far enough off course to take me directly over an airport that looked at night like my destination, Peachtree-Dekalb, Atlanta. (Solid line: original course, dashed line: altered course.)

I had so much wanted that airport to be PDK, but in my weariness I had missed the signs that it was not. I had landed at Gwinnett County Airport, not Peachtree-Dekalb.

No harm was done, but my flight to Thomasville was seriously delayed by the two extra airport stops. It was after 1 AM before I was safe at the Thomasville, GA airport, calling my worried wife to pick me up.

She was not a happy young wife.

A few years later, I added an instrument ticket to  my aviation credentials, and thought that the folly of my youth was far behind me. Now, advance quite a few decades, to a well-equipped, modern cross-country traveling machine, a Piper Arrow with redundant GPS navigation and on-board weather. I often fly in weather, and confidently descend through clouds to a waiting runway. So what could go wrong?

Piper Arrow 200B at home in Panama City, Fl.

Wrong no. 2 happened when approaching Baltimore-Washington International airport after flying with passengers from the Florida Panhandle. Air Traffic Control was keeping me pretty far from the field as we circled Baltimore to approach from the west. I had my instrumentation set-up for an approach to the assigned runway, but after I saw a runway, big and bold in the distance, I was cleared to land, and no longer relied on the GPS as I turned final.

As luck would have it, just a minute before that final turn we saw President George W. Bush and his decoy helicopters flying in loose formation off our port side. I might have been a little distracted.

In the city haze it had been hard to see the smaller runway pointing in the same direction as the main runway. So I was lining up with the easy-to-see large runway, almost a mile away from where I should have been. It was the same airport of course, but the wrong parallel runway.

I was no doubt tired, and somewhat hurried by the high traffic flow coming into a major hub for Baltimore and Washington. Having seen what I wanted to see, a large runway pointed in the correct direction, I assumed it was the right one, and stopped referring to the GPS and ILS (Instrument Landing System) navigation which would have revealed my error.

The tower controller had apparently seen that error many times before and gently nudged me verbally back on course. The flight path was easily corrected and no harm done. But I had proven to myself once again that at the end of a long trip, you tend to see what you want to see.

Several years later I had been slogging through lots of cloud en-route to Dayton, Ohio. I had meetings to attend at Wright Patterson Air Force base. It was again a long flight, but I was relaxed and enjoying the scenery as I navigated with confidence via redundant GPS (three systems operating at the same time).

As I was approaching Dayton, Dayton Approach was vectoring me toward the field. They did a great job I thought as they set me up perfectly for the left downwind at the landing airport. But then I became a bit perturbed that they had vectored me almost on top of the airport and then apparently forgotten about me. So I let them know that I had the airport very much in sight. They switched me to tower, and I was given clearance to land.

As I began descending for a more normal pattern altitude, the Dayton Tower called and said I seemed to be maneuvering for the wrong airport. In fact, I was on top of Wright Patterson Airbase, not Dayton International.

Rats! Not again.

Dayton airports
Wish my electronic Foreflight chart on my iPad had these sorts of markings.

Well, the field was certainly large enough, but once again I had locked eyes on what seemed to be the landing destination, and in fact was being directed there by the authority of the airways, Air Traffic Control (ATC). And so I was convinced during a busy phase of flight that I was doing what I should have been doing, flying visually with great care and attention. However, I was so busy that my mind had tunnel vision. I had once again not double checked the GPS navigator to see that I was being vectored to a large landmark which happened to lie on the circuitous path to the landing airport. (I wish they’d told me that, but detailed explanations are rarely given over busy airwaves.)

Oddly enough, if I had been in the clouds making an instrument approach, these mind-bending errors could not have happened. But when flight conditions are visual, the mind can easily pick a target that meets many of the correct criteria like direction and proximity, and then fill in the blanks with what it expects to see. In other words, it is easy in the visual environment to focus with laser beam precision on the wrong target. With all the situational awareness tools at my disposal, they were of no use once my brain made the transition outside the cockpit.

To be fair, distracting your gaze from the outside world to check internal navigation once you’re in a critical visual phase of approach and landing can be dangerous. That’s why it’s good to have more than one pilot in the cockpit. But my cockpit crew that day was me, myself and I; in that respect I was handicapped.

Apparently, even multiple crew members in military and commercial airliners are occasionally lulled into the same trap. At least that’s what the newspaper headlines say.

My failings are in some ways eerily similar to reports from military and commercial incidents. Contributing factors in the above incidents are darkness, fatigue, and distraction. When all three of these factors are combined, the last factor that can cause the entire house of cards, and airplane, to come tumbling down, is the brain’s ability to morph reality into an image which the mind expects to see. Our ability to discern truth from fiction is not all that clear when encountering new and unexpected events and environments.

The saving grace that aviation has going for it is generally reliable communication. ATC saved me from major embarrassment on two of these three occasions.

I only wish that diving had as reliable a means for detecting and avoiding errors.












The Aesthetics of Flying in Clouds

When it comes to vocations and avocations, I know of none more aesthetically pleasing than flying and diving. I’m sure there are many others, but I simply don’t know them.

My vocation is diving, and flying is my avocation. I also know commercial pilots who dive in caves simply for the joy of diving. Those two activities, flying and diving, are fairly similar, as I’ve noted before.

There are experiences in flying and diving that make them more than enjoyable. They are actually breathtaking, when one takes the time to appreciate them.

For me, the breath taking part is flying into and out of clouds; what is called instrument flying. It’s called that because when you’re in clouds you can’t see the horizon, and you can’t trust bodily sensations, so you are entirely dependent upon your aircraft instruments to make sure you, your passengers, and the aircraft, do not come to harm.

Granted, there are times during an instrument flight when you see absolutely nothing outside the aircraft. Some have compared it to flying inside a milk bottle, which is in my opinion an apt analogy. If it happens to be smooth flight, then there is no sensation of flight at all. The electronic equipment counts down the miles, but as far as you can tell you are in aerial limbo, seemingly suspended in time and space, encroaching on the edges of the twilight zone. 

But when you eventually break out of those clouds, you instantaneously switch from sensory deprivation to sensory overload. The view can be spectacular. 


When I was an instrument student, long before GPS navigation, instrument flying was hard work, especially when training. It still is in many ways, but technology has made flight in the clouds more precise, and frankly easier over all than it used to be.

But in the clouds a pilot is still too busy “aviating, navigating, and communicating”, to catch more than a brief glance outside, to enjoy the ever shifting textures of white clouds, blue sky and a multitude of grays in between. Occasionally you spy greens and browns of the ground, seen fleetingly through breaks in the cloud cover.

It is a grand theater in the sky not visible from the ground. For that reason, it is special, and to be seen in that moment and that place by no one else in the world except you and your passengers.

The video below gives a sample of such variable flows of scenery, with visibility ranging from zero to miles. The entire flight looped around my home airport in Panama City, FL, as I was radar vectored along a large rectangle, eventually joining a course bringing the aircraft back to a straight-in approach for landing.

This particular flight was a currentcy flight, so the departure and approach to landing was repeated several times. The video, however, ends just after I set up the navigation devices for the next approach. (I suggest you watch the video full screen at the highest resolution possible – 1440p HD.)

The only way I can hope to describe the beauty of such a flight is through the music which accompanies it. The quietness, the excitement, is all there. And from one who has experienced all those emotions during the flight, I can attest to the relevance of that music.






A Flight to DeFuniak Springs

Affordable, high definition cameras are opening up a world of sporting video to those who can’t compete with the pros. For aviators, we get to share our passion, the beauty of flight!

I recently borrowed a GoPro camera and gave it a try. The flight in the Piper Arrow was short, 29 nm, from the new airport at Panama City (ECP) to DeFuniak Springs. The sky was spectacular and the air was fresh from the north but at a mercifully pleasant temperature for February (low seventies in °F).  The air was a little turbulent below 2500 feet, explaining the slight bumpiness of the video at low altitude.

After takeoff, climbing to smooth air, I circled over the cypress and hardwood-lined Choctawhatchee river which heads south from southern Alabama to empty into the Choctawhatchee Bay near Destin and Ft. Walton in the Florida Panhandle.  As shown below, that river drains some of the best scuba and cave-diving springs in Florida, including Morrison Spring, featured in the previous post.

Locally, there seems to be some nonchalance about the spelling of Defuniak, De Funiak or DeFuniak. The French care of course, but the locals don’t. Surprisingly, the town was not named after a French trader with the Choctaw Indians. DeFuniak Springs was named after Fred de Funiak, the first president of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad who envisioned DeFuniak Springs as a resort for northern visitors.

A pilot can appreciate that in the video the approach to landing in DeFuniak Springs was not as well aligned as it should have been. I had fallen victim to the visual illusion spoken of in the blog posting Killer Optical Illusions – Size Does Matter.

I usually fly into runways between 150 and 200-feet wide, including current or former military runways and the airport at Panama City. It had been a year since I’d flown into DeFuniak’s narrow 60-foot wide runway, and even though I circled the field twice I still found myself too close-in on downwind (flying parallel to the landing runway, in the opposite direction). That, plus a strong tailwind on base (perpendicular to the runway) put me past the point where I would normally line up for landing.

Over-correcting close to the ground can be fatal due to an event called the stall spin accident. It occurs when aircraft are flown incorrectly close to the ground during that potentially fateful turn to “final”, trying to line up with the runway. Being mindful of that I kept my speed up and corrected no more than necessary to find my way to the runway.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my wife was parked opposite from my intended landing spot watching the approach. I’m glad that, all things considered, it turned out well. At least it drove home my previous point that “Size Matters”.

Technical details: This HD video was taken from the cockpit of a Piper Arrow. A GoPro camera filmed the action. Royalty-free music was generated automatically by Cyberlink PowerDirector 10 with SmartSound technology.

Yea, Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death…

Photo credit: Bob Hammitt

It is true; sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

At a time before virtually all light aircraft had GPS navigation and on-board weather, an instrument-rated pilot would spend lots of time studying the printed station weather reports and forecasts across his route of flight, and then, if things looked reasonably good, pilots would launch into the unknown, with fingers crossed. However, even with the best planning, a pilot can find that weather has changed dramatically in flight.

One of my most memorable flights was from Waycross, Georgia to Gainesville, FL. The flight was in N3879T, a Piper Arrow not too different from the Arrow I’m flying now.  The 94 nautical mile flight would take roughly 45 minutes.

I was lucky since Waycross had a weather radar station on the field; I visited the station to study the radar screens to see what weather systems were active that Sunday afternoon. I had to be back to work on Monday, and it looked like there would be nothing to prevent that.

When I became airborne the weather was ideal; not a cloud in the sky and at least ten miles visibility. The aircraft did not have an autopilot, but I was proficient flying by instruments so I wasn’t concerned when I started entering summer puffy clouds. Eventually the clouds grew closer together, and I was spending more time in the clouds than out.

And then the rain started. Without on-board weather radar, I was very much flying blind.

Flying through rain in Florida is not unusual, but after awhile the rain became more intense, and the diffuse light in front of the airplane became darker.

When I say the rain became more intense, let me put “intense” into perspective. Most airplanes are made of thin sheets of aluminum suspended on aluminum spars. So rain hitting it sounds like banging on metal drums. The resulting din reverberated through every space in the aircraft.

Funny, I thought. None of this was showing on radar when I took off, and there was no forecast of it.  Fortunately, the air was smooth, and I had no problem controlling the aircraft even in spite of seeing nothing out of the windscreen. But I did wonder at one point how the engine could deal with so much water. I don’t know if it did well because of fuel injection or not, but the engine never hiccuped.

At one point, the view out front looked menacingly dark, but off to the left side the light seemed a little brighter. Instinctively I wanted to head where it was lighter. I keyed the microphone to call Air Traffic Control (ATC) and requested a 20 degree deviation to the east, and that was approved. Unfortunately, at that time ground radar which was used to control aircraft was not as good as it is now for showing weather, in particular rainfall intensity. Thus, ATC could not offer a preferred direction for me to fly to escape the worst weather, but at least they assured me that I wouldn’t run into other aircraft. Thank-goodness for that at least.

And then it occurred to me — am I the only idiot flying in this weather?

But even after the course change, the crescendo of rain and noise became almost deafening. After a few minutes of unrelenting watery pounding of the aircraft, ATC called back, but due to the ambient noise level I had a hard time understanding them.

“Say again please?” I asked.

“How’s the ride?”

I reflected for just a moment on the important information before responding, then in as professional a tone as I could muster, “Wet but smooth.”  What I felt like saying was, “It’s like freaking Niagra Falls up here!”

Considering the three words I actually said, the word  “smooth” was what was critical. Severe turbulence can cause a pilot to lose control in the clouds. If you’re flying by instruments alone, and the instruments start varying wildly because the aircraft is being bounced to and fro, then it takes a very skillful pilot to maintain safe flight. Unskilled pilots have pulled the wings off their aircraft by over-controlling in responce to a turbulence-induced upset.

Nexrad image of a squall line. How bad it looks from the cockpit before entry depends on which way you’re flying – from right to left or left to right.

Then it stopped. I flew from deafening, pounding rain, into perfectly clear air. The transition occured literally in a split second. Before me lay only a few small summer cumulus clouds. Out of curiosity I looked behind me — and almost lost my cool. What I saw was a solid wall of black clouds and rain reaching from the ground to far above me. It looked like a cliff, like the smooth edge of a giant black skyscraper, except it was one that stretched in a perfect line from as far as I could see to the east and west.

It was a frightening looking squall line, and had I been flying in the opposite direction there was no way I would have penetrated that wall of certain death. But approaching it from the benign-looking side of the squall line, lulled by innocent looking summer clouds, I had stumbled unawares into a potentially lethal trap.

But somehow it had not claimed me; it had been smooth during the entire flight. I had encountered no hail, no lightning, and no severe up and down drafts. Assuredly, the odds against that outcome were extremely small. Had I not made a 20° turn toward the light, so to speak, the outcome might have been much different. Of course I’ll never know for sure what would have happened, but the statistics say it would not have turned out well. I was lucky.

Yes, I’ll take good luck any day, but as the title of this post suggests, it may have been much more than luck that directed me safely to the other side of the squall line. I had, after all, been praying.






Me and My Arrow

1971 Piper Arrow 200

OK, I admit it. I’m in love with an inanimate object.

But if you could see her, you’d understand. In fact you might feel the same way.

Sometimes I even wonder, if she really is inanimate? So what if she’s forty years old. So what if she’s high maintenance? So what if her paint is not as fresh as it once was?

Where else could I find a thoroughbred steed that can take me and my family whizzing across country at 160 mph, above the clouds and haze of summer, through mild or threatening weather, day or night, eating up the miles like a horse on speed.

Her heart is 200 horsepower of whirring, fuel-injected cylinders. When given her lead, her three-bladed propeller slices through the air turning it into powerful thrust, like the magic machine she is. Her graceful wings vault her into the air, reaching for heaven, and finding quiet solace two miles high.

To understand her best is to realize she’s more than a magic machine; she is veritably a time machine, leaping us across country on a time schedule simply unimaginable any other way.

And the sights from her cockpit are unmatched by any artist, especially when a mixture of stormy and clearing weather paints a palette of color and texture that exceeds the  human capacity to absorb, visually.

What is left is raw emotion.

She may be inanimate, but riding her is like clinging to the back of an angel. What’s not to love?

An undercast, seen from 9000 feet

In 1971 Harry Nilsson wrote a song I’ve always loved, and now I can claim it as my own. At least I imagine it that way.

Me and my Arrow
Straighter than narrow
Wherever we go, every one knows
It’s me and my Arrow

Me and my Arrow
Taking the high road
Wherever we go, everyone knows
It’s me and my Arrow

Here is how it sounds, from Harry Nilsson himself.