Boeing 747 “Dreamlifter” Cargo Jet Lands At Wrong Airport

By Kim Smiley

On November 21, 2013, a massive Boeing 747 Dreamlifter cargo jet made national headlines after it landed at the wrong airport near Wichita, Kansas.  For a time, the Dreamlifter looked to be stuck at the small airport with a relatively short runway, but it was able to take off safely the next day after some quick calculations and a little help turning around.

At the time of the airport mix-up, the Dreamlifter was on its way to the McConnell Air Force base to retrieve Dreamliner nose sections made by nearby Spirit Aerosystems.   Dreamlifters are notably large because they are modified jumbo jets designed to haul pieces of Dreamliners between the different facilities that manufacture parts for aircraft.

So how does an airplane land at the wrong airport?  It’s not entirely clear yet how a mistake of this magnitude was made.  The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to investigate the incident to determine what happened and to see whether any regulations were violated.  What is known is that the airports have some similarities in layout that can be confusing from the air.  First off, there are three airports in fairly close proximity in the region.  The intended destination was the McConnell Air Force base, which has a runway configuration similar to Jabara airfield where the Dreamlifter landed by mistake.  Both runways run north-south and  are nearly parallel.  It can also be difficult to determine how long a runway is from the airport so the shorter length isn’t necessarily easy to see.  Beyond the airport similarities, the details of how the plane landed at the wrong airport haven’t been released yet.

What is known can be captured by building an initial Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis.  One of the advantages of Cause Maps is they can be easily expanded to incorporate more information as it becomes available.  The first step in Cause Mapping is to fill in an Outline with the basic background information and to list how the issue impacts the overall goals.  There are a number of goals impacted in this example.  The potential for a plane crash means that there was an impact to both the safety and property goal because of the possibility of fatalities and damage to the jet.  The effort needed to ensure that the jet could safely take off on a shorter runway is an impact to the labor goal and the delay was an impact to the schedule goal.  The negative publicity surrounding this incident can also be considered an impact to the  customer service goal.

Once the Outline is completed, the Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and intuitively laying out the answers until all the causes that contributed to the issue are documented.  Click on “Download PDF” above to see an Outline and initial Cause Map of this issue.

Good luck with any air travel planned for this busy holiday week.  And if your plane makes it to the right airport (even if it’s a little late), take a moment to be thankful because it’s apparently not the given I’ve generally assumed.