Plane Mistakenly Lands in Scotland Instead of Germany.

April 23, 2019

DID YOU HEAR the one about the flight that went to Edinburgh instead of Dusseldorf?

On March 25th, a British Airways regional jet took off from London City Airport (LCY) bound for Dusseldorf, Germany. An hour or so later, the passengers found themselves in Edinburgh, Scotland. Not until the jet touched down did they realize they were headed to the wrong city.

Reporting on this incident has been inconsistent at best. Obviously certain outlets find the whole “the pilots flew to the wrong airport!” angle irresistible. But that isn’t what happened. The pilots, the flight attendants, and their aircraft were dispatched, flight-planned, and fueled for a trip to Edinburgh. That’s where they were expected to fly, and that’s where they went.
The passengers, on the other hand, thought they were going to Dusseldorf. In other words, the plane didn’t fly to the wrong city. The passengers were put on the wrong plane.
The breakdown was apparently between the technical staff (pilots, dispatchers and flight attendants) and the airport personnel who processed and boarded the passengers. The former were Edinburgh-bound. The latter were handling a flight to Germany — or so they thought.

But, you’re thinking, wouldn’t the “welcome aboard” spiel by either the pilots or cabin crew have given things away? We always mention the destination, don’t we? And surely flight attendants would have noticed “Dusseldorf” on the customers’ boarding passes, right? The signs and announcements at the gate, too, would have referenced Edinburgh. Could all of this have somehow been missed?

I, for one, can see it happening. Those PAs are sometimes perfunctory, and how many people are listening to begin with? And I can easily — easily — imagine a scenario where the gate personnel and flight crew found themselves on separate pages, regardless of any boarding announcements or signs above the podium. The fact this was a contract company flying on British Airways’ behalf, rather than an actual BA aircraft operated and overseen by BA personnel, could also have been a factor.

Embarrassing, sure.  But not the same thing as two pilots taking their plane to the wrong destination. Which, I’m the first to admit, has happened. More than once…

In 2013, a Southwest 737 destined for Branson, Missouri, instead ended up at a small general aviation field nearby, touching down on a runway less than four thousand feet long. Only a few months earlier, a 747 freighter operated by Atlas Air found itself at the wrong airport in Kansas. In June, 2004, a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Rapid City mistakenly landed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. And, in 1995, a Northwest DC-10 touched down in Brussels instead of Frankfurt. And this is only a partial list.

The idea of highly trained aircrews with troves of technology at their behest landing astray sounds, I’ll agree, amusing, quaint, or even patently ridiculous. So how does it happen? Improperly keyed coordinates? A navigational computer gone crazy? Or is there a more visceral, seat-of-the-pants explanation, such as a tired crew mixing up a pair of similar-looking runways.

If there’s a common thread, it’s that often in these cases pilots were flying what we call a “visual approach.” Most of the time, jetliners land using what we call an ILS (instrument landing system) in which controllers guide us onto a pair of radio beams — one vertical, the other horizontal — that form a sort of crosshair that we track to the runway, either manually or by coupling the ILS to the plane’s autoflight system. There are also what we call “non-precision” instrument patterns, in which a GPS-guided course takes you to a few hundred feet or less above the pavement. But a visual approach, as the name implies, is almost entirely pilot-guided. This is when high-tech goes low-tech. Essentially you eyeball the airport through the windshield, report “field in sight” to ATC, get your clearance and go ahead and land. When available we back-up a visual with whatever electronic landing aids might also be available (an ILS signal, usually), But sometimes our orientation is based entirely on what we see through the window.

Visual approaches are very common, very routine, even at the biggest and busiest airports. Airline pilots perform thousands of these approaches every day without incident. However, you need to be sure of what you’re looking at. This is particularly true at smaller airports, where cues on the ground (roads, coastlines, buildings etc.) aren’t as obvious, and where you might not be familiar with the surroundings. Certain combinations of circumstances make a mistake more likely: a nighttime visual with low-altitude maneuvering, for instance, at an airport you’re not used to, with perhaps a similarly laid-out airport nearby.

In the winter of 1990 I was copiloting a small turboprop when we were cleared for a nighttime visual approach to New Haven, Connecticut. As it happens, the lights and orientation of nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, appear strikingly similar to those of New Haven. After a minute or two we realized the error and corrected course. All of this happened far from the runway, and, somewhat in our defense, we were flying a 15-seat Beech-99 — a vintage relic from the Age of Aquarius, with as many electronic accoutrements as my mountain bike.

In addition to whatever human errors catalyze such events, weather and air traffic control (ATC), to name two, can lend a hand in getting from point A to, as it were, point C. In the case of that DC-10 finding its way to Belgium instead of Germany, air traffic controllers had been given the wrong information, and began issuing a long and complicated series of vectors and course changes to the crew, sending it toward Brussels. Airspace in Europe is complex and congested, and roundabout routings aren’t uncommon. Thus it wasn’t necessarily obvious to the crew that they were being led astray. By the time the crew realized they were being vectored to Brussels, they decided to land there rather than have to recalculate fuel reserves and orchestrate a last-second re-routing. In the end, it was probably safer to land at the wrong airport than the right one.

The act of landing a plane is, on one level, inordinately simple. At the same time, it’s a maneuver beholden to technology. It can be one, or the other, or both, depending on circumstances: the aircraft type, the approach being flown, the weather, the airport. There are times when an old-school, seat-of-the-pants skill set is exactly what’s required. Other times it’s all but impossible to find a runway without help from the instruments and screens in front of us. Either way, though, it comes down to judgment and decision-making. Despite everything you hear about autopilot and the alleged sophistication of modern jetliners, it’s the fight crew — the pilots — who are very much flying the airplane. Sometimes it takes an embarrassing mistake to make this point clear.


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21 Responses to “Plane Mistakenly Lands in Scotland Instead of Germany.”
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  1. John Skrabutenas says:

    I know that in your personal story, there was not a lot of technology available, but in general there is, right? So, why are so many (“thousands of these…every day”) visual approaches done? Or, it is simply a matter of ILS not being available in all of these cases?

  2. Mary says:

    Once many years ago — in the seventies — I boarded a plane to Cincinnati. The flight attendant welcomed us on our flight to Cleveland. All of a sudden there was the sound of 80+ seat belts being unsnapped and people getting up until a quick correction was made.

  3. Ad absurdum per aspera says:

    I don’t know if this is *always* done (I’ve been listening for it ever since this incident, but that’s only been a few flights), but my impression is that usually there’s a “from the flight deck” announcement, while still on the ground, that mentions the destination along with some fun factoids about the flight, the weather at the other end, etc.

    That should give one last chance for somebody to say “What the…” while a confused murmur buzzes around the cabin if the plane is not headed to the city expected by its passengers. (Or any individual who somehow boarded the wrong plane, a rather more common occurrence, could poke the call button.)

  4. Alan Hack says:

    Hi Patrick
    Many many years ago, I don’t remember the date, I was on a flight to Salt Lake City. We landed on a small airport runway that was apparently in a direct line with the SLC runway. The pilot apologized and we were bused to the correct airport.

    Found it on your list: 3DEC1974, Frontier Air, Salt Lake Airport 2.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Rod says:

    I think it was Len Morgan, who had a long career with Braniff and used to write a column for Flying Magazine, who told the story of his DC-3 days (early 50s) when they used to fly long strings of short flights (Upper Hogwash, ND; Coon Rapids, SD; whatever) with people getting on and off as they proceeded. In those regulated days, occasionally a destination would be reassigned to a different company. You were so used to certain dozen-hop routes that it was second nature and, if you weren’t careful, you might just absent-mindedly forge ahead and land.

    Inevitably, a crew landed at a place they no longer serviced. As they pulled up, the station agent emerged with a big smirk on his face. The captain thought for a minute, then shouted out the window “Rough engine! Could you please have a mechanic take a look?”

  6. passing through says:

    It doesn’t seem right to say the passengers were put on the wrong plane. That implies that somewhere, there was a correct plane, and it either flew to DUS empty, or it flew to DUS with passengers who didn’t want to go to DUS. We haven’t heard of that being the case. So it seems to me that the event should be described in some other way.

    • Alan Dahl says:

      As noted below this was simply a paperwork SNAFU. The same flight number is used for both destinations depending on the day of the week. The software used to schedule the flight/crew was given the info for a different day while the system used for passenger reservations and terminal staff listed the correct destination. So this isn’t a classic “wrong airport” situation but rather a coordination issue between the airline and the contractor that actually provides the aircraft and crew.

  7. passing through says:

    wrong airport landings happen more often than people realize. this website keeps a compilation

  8. Kathy says:

    Don’t forget Varig Flight 254. Instead of heading to Belem, it went deep into the Amazon jungle, ultimately crash landing when the plane ran out of fuel.


    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      There was a little more to the story of the Varig flight.
      On the ground, the captain worked hard to keep the survivors alive and was initially hailed as a hero.
      But some of the passengers noticed that they were flying right into the sunset when their destination was to the northeast, and the flight crew should have noticed it too.

  9. Tom says:

    The discussion about the codeshare between BA and its regional partner raises the question of whether such relationships are worth the trouble for the major airline. I’m thinking of the United Airlines “dragging the passenger off” incident at ORD a while back. When the little-known small airline screws up, the well-known major partner gets all the blame and negative publicity. At some point, it seems, the majors might decide that it’s better to operate more of the short-haul flights themselves.

  10. Alan Dahl says:

    My understanding is that while all of the paperwork that the flight crew (pilots and flight attendants) and air traffic control were given indicated that the flight’s intended destination was Edinburgh the gate signage and gate personnel and of course the passengers thought the flight was to Dusseldorf. This is indeed possible because the flight was operated not by British Airways but rather by the German firm WDL Aviation, a BA contractor. If the gate staff were BA employees or employees of still another contractor then they were likely as surprised as the passengers. This points out another, albeit minor, risk of using contractors rather than running the flight yourself.

  11. Jennifer Moore says:

    I recall a couple of decades ago that a jet lined up with the runway at Howard Hughes’ facility instead of LAX. It’s all condos now.

  12. Gene says:

    Reminds me the time I realized I was lined up for CA-55 instead of 20R at SNA. It was fatigue and high workload after a long day of flying a Mooney M-20 from PWT for a night landing. The winds weren’t in my favor, it was late November, and I was having what I thought was minor engine trouble.

    When I noticed the interchange with I-405, I realized that wasn’t the runway and quickly identified the correct place to point the nose.

    • NurseJ says:

      This reminds me of the Air Canada plane that almost landed on the taxiway aircraft in San Francisco July 2017.
      Can anyone explain how a pilot misreads all that lighting/input?
      …Taxiway versus landing runway.

      • Rod says:

        Here’s how:

        The crew were Tired. I think they’d just had to fly from Toronto to NYC and back. Now they had to fly across the continent to SFO.

        I imagine SFO is already challenging because of the “black hole effect” of that giant bay leading up to two parallel runways so narrowly separated.
        You’re told to land on 28Right and you’re expecting to see the lights of 28Left to your left. They took the lights of 28R for the lights of 28L and went for the taxiway.
        In their defence: They questioned the tower — things didn’t look right. And they started going around before the tower told them to.

        True, they’d been “informed” in a “NOTAM” (written in near-indeciphrable drivel full of mind-wrenching abbreviations) that 28L was closed. But the thing was twenty-seven (27) freaking pages long. NOTAMS are routinely full of the most arcane and Obvious information pumped up so as to be near-incomprehensible. They’ll warn you that there are birds in the vicinity of an airport. Well, name me an airport anywhere that doesn’t have birds in the vicinity. Ad nauseam.

        They failed to tune the localizer to 28R, which would have avoided the whole thing. That was one of the NTSB’s main findings, along with the fact that they were TIRED.

        Another main finding was that NOTAMs are “a bunch of garbage” (Chairman Sumalt). There is a professional pilots’ organization devoted to scrapping the NOTAM system and replacing it with trimmed-down Real Language.

  13. Landis says:

    Probably shouldn’t have picked Ellsworth as an example and not mention the 2016 Delta flight that also landed there instead of Rapid City Regional. As you point out in your article, once you go visual it is a little easier to understand how this happens especially when there’s a runway with the correct orientation directly in front of you. Spokane is another easy one to get confused with a neighboring military air base.

  14. Carole says:

    In July 2012, a C-17 military cargo plane departed from Rome and headed for McDill AFB in Tampa. After the 12 hour trip that included a mid-air refueling, the pilots landed the massive plane 4 miles away from McDill at a tiny little general aviation airport and had to screech to a halt when the runway did not match the expected length.

    The military investigated and blamed “fatigue, complacency and a lack of flight discipline.” The passenger on board, General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command at MacDill AFB, took a different view and put in good words for the pilots, citing his own “colossal mistakes” in earlier years and wishing them long, illustrious careers.

  15. Eric in NH says:

    I heard a story from a GA pilot years ago of the time he declined tower clearance onto the runway at BUR because of an incoming DC-10 that was supposed to land at LAX.

    And sometimes these incidents have tragic results, like OH5191, which tried to depart LEX on the too-short Runway 26 instead of the intended Runway 22.

  16. Jonny says:

    One time my son and I were getting together at a bar; I thought we were meeting at Skelly’s, he thought we were meeting Sullys. We got it sorted out.

  17. Craig Blome says:

    Many a crew misjudged the approach to Houston’s Hobby Airport back in the day and delivered their passengers to the nearby Ellington Field back when it was an active air force base. I understand the paper trail that followed such an incursion was enough to remind one never to do it again. And of course there was the Dreamlifter that mistook the 6000 foot runway at Wichita’s GA airport for the 9000 foot one it wanted…