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Good Question: How Can A Pilot Get Lost?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Every day, almost 30,000 planes take off and land in the United States without a hitch.

But a new report released by the Associated Press found at least 150 flights have landed or almost landed at the wrong airport since the mid-90s.

These flights include a cargo 747 that landed at a small Kansas airport last fall, eight miles from its intended target. And there was a Southwest 737 last month that was headed for Branson, Mo. but ended up at a small airport seven miles away.

Dr. Maxine Lubner, a pilot and chair of the aviation and management program at Vaughn College, says it can be chalked up to human error.

“You see something you’re expecting to see. There’s a runway in the same orientation or a very similar one where you’re expecting to land,” Lubner said.

According to the AP, 35 of the planes landed and 115 approached or aborted landing attempts at the wrong airports.

In almost all cases, according to an aviation safety consultant and former pilot Keith Mackey, the pilots were conducting visual landings rather than using the instrumental or navigation equipment.

“If the weather is good, and you can land visually, most pilots prefer to do it that way,” Mackey said.

He says visual landings, when appropriate, are a more efficient way to land because pilots don’t have to fly the entire path of the approach.

“Usually the pilots look out and see a runway and it looks like that’s where they’re supposed to land and they do,” he said. “Someone who isn’t accustomed to operating in and out of there every day, it would be very easy to mistake one for another.”

Mackey says many times some of these smaller airports don’t have air traffic control towers. He also points out runways lights in the same direction or orientation can look similar in the dark.

In a statement released Monday, the FAA said they review “reported wrong airport incidents to determine whether steps such as airfield lighting adjustment may reduce pilot confusion.”

“Frequently this happens at night where there are not a lot of surrounding landmarks to make the airport easily identifiable,” Mackey said.

Mackey, Lubner and the FAA emphasize just how rare a mistaken airport landing happens. According to the FAA, there have been no reports of injuries or damage in over 100 million flights throughout the past ten years due to safety improvement and air traffic controls in place.

Over the past 15 years, GPS on planes has become standard, but the AP found some pilots “disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes were slightly off course because the information didn’t match what they were seeing out their windows – a runway straight ahead.”

Lubner says pilots and the airline industry must find a good “balance” when it comes to automation versus visual landings.

Keith McGuire, a former NTSB accident investigator and current professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, says there’s a debate about automation. While it can prevent some forms of human error, there is an argument that it could “create accidents because pilots lose proficiency.”

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