WICHITA, Kan. — The pilot of one of the Boeing Co.’s four Dreamlifter jumbo jets mistakenly landed the modified Boeing 747 at a small Kansas airport late Wednesday instead of the Air Force base a few miles away where he was supposed to set the plane down.
The gigantic plane’s crew of two intended to touch down at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, where it was supposed to deliver Boeing 787 Dreamliner parts to a nearby supplier that makes large sections of the jet.
Instead, the freighter landed 8 miles north, at smaller Col. James Jabara Airport.
Hours later, the jet took off again from the short, 6,100-foot runway and within minutes landed at its original destination. Boeing 747s usually don’t use runways shorter than 9,000 feet. The plane’s cargo was not particularly heavy, authorities said, which made a short takeoff roll possible.
The area has three airports with similar runway configurations: the Air Force base, the Jabara airfield and a third facility in between called Beech Airport.
Boeing’s Dreamlifters are operated under contract by Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, a New York-based cargo-hauler that also provides crews or planes to companies that need them.
Atlas Air spokeswoman Bonnie Rodney declined to answer questions and referred inquiries to Boeing.
“We are working with Atlas Air to determine the circumstances,” Boeing said in a written statement.
The Federal Aviation Administration planned to investigate whether the pilot followed controllers’ instructions or violated any federal regulations.
The pilot sounded confused in his exchanges with air traffic control, according to audio provided by LiveATC.net.
“We just landed at the other airport,” the pilot told controllers shortly after the landing.
Once the pilot said they were at the wrong airport, two different controllers jumped in to confirm that the plane WAs safely on the ground.
The pilot and controllers then went back and forth trying to figure out which airport the plane was at. At one point, a controller read to the pilot the coordinates where he saw the plane on radar. When the pilot read the coordinates back, he mixed up “east” and “west.”
“Sorry about that, couldn’t read my handwriting,” the pilot said.
A few moments later, the pilot said he thought he knew where they were. He then asked how many airports there were to the south of McConnell. But the airports are north of McConnell.
“I’m sorry, I meant north,” the pilot said when corrected. “I’m sorry. I’m looking at something else.”
They finally agreed on where the plane was after the pilot reported that a smaller plane, visible on the radar of air traffic control, had just flown overhead.
Thursday morning, shortly after 11 Everett time, the plane took off without incident and flew to the Air Force base.
The modified 747s haul parts and assemblies around the world. The Dreamlifter is a 747-400 with its body expanded to hold whole fuselage sections and other large parts. If a regular 747 with its bulbous double-decker nose looks like a snake, the bulbous Dreamlifter looks like a snake that swallowed a rat.
According to flight-tracking service FlightAware, this particular Dreamlifter has been shuttling between Kansas and Italy, by way of New York.
McConnell is next to Spirit AeroSystems, which does extensive 787 work. Nearly finished sections are then shipped to Boeing plants in Everett and North Charleston, S.C., for assembly into finished airplanes. Boeing is on track to make 10 of them per month by the end of this year.
Because 787 pieces are built all over the world — including wings made in Japan — the Dreamlifters are crucial to the 787’s construction. Boeing says the Dreamlifter cuts delivery time down to one day from as many as 30 days.
Although rare, landings by large aircraft at smaller airports have happened from time to time.
In July last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., landed without incident at the small Peter O. Knight Airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area, and base officials introduced an updated landing procedure to mitigate future problems.
The following month, a Silver Airways pilot making one of the Florida airline’s first flights to Bridgeport, W. Va., mistakenly landed his Saab 340 at a tiny airport in nearby Fairmont.