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‘Pilot error’: U.S. investigators lay blame for wrong airport landing at pilot’s feet

A Delta jetliner with 130 passengers touched down at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota last year—missing its intended destination by six miles


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MINNEAPOLIS—Federal authorities have blamed pilot error for a Delta Air Lines jet with 130 passengers landing at the wrong airport in South Dakota last year, noting that the flight crew had been cautioned that the two airports are close and easy to confuse.

Delta Flight 2845 from Minneapolis landed July 7 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, about 6 miles (10 kilometres) northwest of the intended destination, Rapid City Regional Airport. The flight crew misidentified the runway due to excess altitude and failure to use all the navigation information available to them, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report. The report, adopted May 26, was first reported by the Rapid City Journal June 6.

The two airfields have runways running northwest-to-southeast that nearly line up, with compass headings only 10 degrees apart, the report noted. Pilot confusion between the two is “fairly common,” the report said, though air traffic controllers and flight crews usually catch the error before landing. Previous mistaken landings at the base include a Northwest Airlines flight in 2004 and a business jet in 2015.

Delta’s own pilot guidance notes that Ellsworth lies northwest of Rapid City on final approach to the runway where the crew intended to land. “These airports have similar runway alignment and can be mistaken for one another,” the guidance says.

In this case, the report said, a controller who cleared the crew for a visual approach to Rapid City from the northwest advised them, “use caution for Ellsworth Air Force base located 6 miles northwest of Rapid City Regional.”

The first officer acknowledged the clearance and asked the captain: “’You got the right one in sight?’ The captain replied, ‘I hope I do,”’ the report said.

The Ellsworth runway came up first. The crew realized its mistake just before touchdown, but decided it was safest to complete the landing.

Delta did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The airline said at the time of the incident that the crew was taken off duty while the NTSB investigated. The airline also offered apologies to the passengers, who were kept in the plane for about 2 1/2 hours and ordered to pull down their window shades while base security personnel investigated.

An Associated Press search three years ago of government safety data and news reports since the early 1990s found at least 150 flights in which U.S. commercial passenger and cargo planes had either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time.


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