Last week, international news headlines were filled with the headlines of a Boeing 747 that landed at the wrong airport. Meanwhile, pilots all over the world cringed at the thought of making that kind of mistake and ending up in the media spotlight. But of course the question on most people’s lips has been, how could someone accidentally land at the wrong airport?

It’s not that uncommon. I wrote about another incident just last year at Oops, Wrong Airport. But what makes this one special is the transcript after they landed.

Let’s get to the details. The aircraft was a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, a specially modified jet specifically designed to haul large cargo.

Boeing: Boeing 747 Dreamlifter Fact Sheet

The Boeing Dreamlifter is a modified 747-400 passenger airplane that can haul more cargo by volume than any airplane in the world. It is the primary means of transporting major assemblies of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from suppliers around the world to the 787 final assembly site in Everett, Wash. This reduces delivery times to as little as one day from as many as 30 days today.
Range: Dependent on payload but comparable to other members of the 747 family of aircraft.
Wing Span: 211.5 feet (64.44 meters)
Length: 235 feet, 2 inches (71.68 meters)
Height (fin tip): 70 feet, 8 inches (21.54 meters)

N780BA, operated by Atlas Air, was meant to be picking up B-787 fuselage parts in Wichita, Kansas that evening, for delivery to Boeing in Seattle, Washington.

It departed New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport without incident at 19:26 local time, bound for McConnell Air Force Base.

However, despite what appeared at first to be a normal approach and landing, the flight crew actually landed at a much smaller general aviation airport: Col. James Jabara Airport.

Boeing Dreamlifter takes flight in NE Wichita | Local News – Home

A Dreamlifter is supposed to need a runway 9,199 feet long to take off at maximum takeoff weight, and 7,000 feet to land at maximum landing weight. The runway length at Jabara is 6,101 feet.

Colonel James Jabara Airport handles general aviation and air taxi traffic. It has a single concrete runway 18/36, which is 6,101 feet (1,860 meters) long. It’s named after James Jabara, an American pilot who served in World War II and the Korean War and was officially the first American flying ace: a military aviator credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat.

The aircraft, callsign Giant 4241 Heavy, was talking to McConnell Air Force Base tower frequency and reported they were inbound for the RNAV (GPS) approach on runway 19L.

You can listen to the transcript of the relevant calls as an MP3 on Kansas.com. It starts out as a normal GPS approach on runway 19L.

Giant 4241 heavy: Good evening, McConnell Tower. Giant 4241 heavy is on the …er, GPS, RNAV GPS approach 19 left.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, McConnell Tower. Check wheels down. Runway 19 left, wind 140 at 4, cleared to land.
Giant 4241 heavy: Clear to land, runway 19 left, wheels down. Giant 4241 heavy.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, check wheels down.
Giant 4241 heavy: Giant 4241, go ahead.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, check wheels down and expect a mid-field turnoff at Delta.

But somehow it swiftly goes wrong.

Giant 4241 heavy: Giant 1440…4241. We might…We’ll get back to here momentarily, we’re not on your approach.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, McConnell is 9 miles south of you.
Giant 4241 heavy: Uh, yes sir. We just landed at the other airport.

So, well, oops? There’s not a lot you can say to that, really.

Giant 4241 heavy: Uh, apparently we’ve landed at B E C
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, verify you’re on the ground at Beech Airport?
Giant 4241 heavy: We think so.

I shouldn’t laugh. I know I shouldn’t laugh. But oh, his voice. You can hear that he’s dying inside.

So, BEC is Beechcraft Factory Airport, which lies between Jabara and McConnell. They aren’t at Beech Airport at all, but they don’t know that yet.

Here’s the lay of the land from SkyVector.

SkyVector: Flight Planning / Aeronautical Charts

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, McConnell Supervisor. Verify you are full stopped and landed. Stopped at BEC airport?
Giant 4241 heavy: Affirmative
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, McConnell Tower. Are you able to make an approach, uh, a departure off that airport and back in the air to McConnell?
Giant 4241 heavy: Tower, we’re working on those details now sir.
McConnell Tower: Roger.

It’s about four minutes later when they speak up again.

Giant 4241 heavy: And McConnell Tower, Giant 4241.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, McConnell Tower.
Giant 4241 heavy: Yes sir, do you have a quick, is there a tower frequency here? For Beech?
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, Beech Tower is actually closed at this time.
Giant 4241 heavy: Okay. Is there a Unicom frequency?

Unicom frequencies are used at airfields where there’s no active control tower. They may be staffed by ground personnel who can offer advice. Local aircraft can also use the frequency to announce what they are doing, effectively keeping in contact with all other aircraft traffic in the local area. As the 747 is blocking the runway, it’s important that they have contact with other incoming aircraft.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, stand by.
Giant 4241 heavy: And one more thing, do you have the coordinates for the airport?
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, stand by on that.

The coordinates they are requesting are the longitude and latitude of Beech Airport.

The flightcrew of Giant 4241 is definitely flustered now, struggling to note the coordinates which are clearly not what they were expecting.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, I have the coordinates when ready to copy.
Giant 4241 heavy: Tower ready, go ahead
McConnell Tower: Beech is Kilo Bravo Echo Charlie, North 37 degrees 41 point 64, West 97 degrees 12 point 90.
Giant 4241 heavy: OK, let me read those back. North 374164?
McConnell Tower: Affirmative.
Giant 4241 heavy: OK, and then East 92129…uh, zero?
McConnell Tower: West 97 degrees 12 point 90
Giant 4241 heavy: Sorry about that, can’t read my own handwriting, West 9212 decimal 90
McConnell Tower: West 9712 decimal 90
Giant 4241 heavy: OK, 9712 decimal uh decimal 90
Giant 4241 heavy: Alright, here’s the coordinates we’re showing currently for us: North 3744 decimal 4, West 09713 decimal 3
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger, stand by.

So, definitely not at Beech Airport.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy… Did you do a circle around the airport and then land, or did you make it straight in?

I don’t think he really needs the answer to that question.

Giant 4241 heavy: Straight in, sir.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, can you say your coordinates again?
Giant 4241 heavy: Alright, currently we are showing North 3744 decimal 4, West 09713 decimal 3. We’ve got a gentleman here, outside the aircraft now.

I like how he keeps saying “currently,” like his coordinates might inexplicably change at any moment.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger.
Giant 4241 heavy: And sir, do you have a frequency by chance?

Because we really would like to be talking to someone at this mystery airfield where we appear to have landed…

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, from the target we saw on the radar scope, we have you overtop, the target was overtop of Jabara airport, which is approximately 8 miles north of McConnell airport. Unicom frequency is 1 2 3 point 7, say again 1 2 3 point 7
Giant 4241 heavy: Alright, this gentleman is giving us a frequency, we’re going to try it out, 1 2 3 point 7 as well.

What a nice gentleman and a nice positive identification that they really are at Jabara.

Giant 4241 heavy: McConnell Tower, Giant 4241.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, in contact
Giant 4241 heavy: Yes sir, we are in contact with the company right now, we’ll analyze for performance status.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger.

The controller doesn’t sound confident that the flight crew know what they are doing… and who can blame him? They have not yet acknowledged that they are at Jabara.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, and confirm you know which airport you’re at.

Giant 4241 heavy: Well, we think we have a pretty good pulse. Uh, how many… let me ask you this, how many airports directly to the south of 19, uh, of your 19, are there?

This was maybe not the best way to inspire confidence.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, uh you’re currently north of McConnell. And there’s three along the approach.

Giant 4241 heavy: Sorry, I meant north. I’m sorry, I’m looking at something else. We are showing about six miles north of you.
McConnell Tower: Copy, six miles north.

I love how the controller sounds like he just can’t quite believe what’s happening.

McConnell Tower: And 4241 heavy, affirmative. Right now we …are still trying to figure it out.
Giant 4241 heavy: OK, thanks.
Giant 4241 heavy: Tower, we just had a twin engine aircraft, a turboprop aircraft go over the top of us.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger. It appears you are at Jabara.
Giant 4241 heavy: Uh, say again?

I know, I shouldn’t laugh. But honestly! It’s hard to resist wondering why one of the flight crew didn’t simply get an iPhone out and check Google maps….

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, we saw the plane on the radar and it appears you are at Jabara airport.
Giant 4241 heavy: Say the name of it again?
McConnell Tower: Jabara
Giant 4241 heavy: Jabaro?
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, that’s J A B A R A
Giant 4241 heavy: OK. Alright. Uh, copy that.

Flight crew is still not 100% convinced though.

Giant 4241 heavy: OK, we also show we are just short of, about a mile short of WARUN* now.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger. Yes. That’s Jabara.
Giant 4241 heavy: McConnell Tower, Giant 4241
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy.
Giant 4241 heavy: Yes sir, it looks like we do confirm that it is Jabara.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger.

*Thanks to the Redditor who corrected my transcript to WARUN, the final approach fix for the RNAV GPS approach on 19L.

So now they know where they are. But acceptance is only half the battle.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241, say intentions?
Giant 4241 heavy: Uh, we’re talking to the company now, we’re trying to assess our performance situation as far as being able to leave this airport and come to you.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger. Just keep us advised.
Giant 4241 heavy: OK, yeah. We will not take off without clearing it through you as well.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger.

It’s important to remember that the runway they are on is only 6,100 feet and that aircraft can’t reverse.

McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, McConnell Tower. Can you confirm, are you on the runway?
Giant 4241 heavy: Affirmative. I am on their Unicom frequency as well, talking to local traffic. We’re trying to, uh, we’re trying to assess our situation as far as clearing the runway is concerned.
McConnell Tower: Giant 4241 heavy, roger.

In the end, Boeing delivered an aircraft tug from McConnell to Jabara to turn the 747 around. The tug drove down the local highway at 13 mph with a police escort.

Boeing’s Massive Dreamlifter Lands at the Wrong Airport, Gets Stuck (Updated) | Autopia | Wired.com

For any pilot who has needed some navigation help from ATC (or has simply been corrected by ATC), the audio is familiar cringeworthy listening. The upside is that these pilots have set the bar rather high for future embarrassing communications with a controller.

To the great relief of everyone involved, the aircraft was not heavily loaded and not carrying much fuel. It would be able to take off from the short runway. The departure the following day went seamlessly. It should be noted that a different flight crew was given the job of delivering the aircraft to McConnell.

According to FlightAware.com, the aircraft departed Jabara at 13:16, arriving safely at McConnell Air Force Base 19 minutes later. You can see how they flew almost a full circle to reposition the aircraft at McConnell. Apparently the 747 only used about 4,500 feet of the 6,100 foot runaway to take off.

Needless to say, the NTSB is investigating.