Saturday, July 21, 2012


An Air Force C-17 transport takes off from Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa Friday evening. The airlift landed at the general aviation facility by mistake while enroute to nearby MacDill AFB (photo by Michael Egger via Aviation News in the Raw).

Flying into Tampa isn't as easy as you might think. Along with the traffic--and occasional bad weather--there's the relatively close proximity of runways for three airports: MacDill AFB, Tampa International and Peter O. Knight Field, a general aviation airfield. Pilots fly roughly the same heading to land at each facility, creating the potential for confusion.

Over the years, there have been "accidental" landings by pilots who mistake the runway at another field for their intended landing site. Most of these have occured when commercial pilots landed their jets at MacDill, where they're greeted by armed security forces personnel. Back in 2004, two pilots made the same mistake in the same week, and there have been other--though infrequent--mistakes involving commercial jets touching down at the Air Force base.

However, we haven't heard of any military planes mistaking Peter O. Knight for MacDill or Tampa International. Until yesterday.

That's when an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III touched down at the general aviation field. As you might expect, the large transport needs a fair amount of runway to take off and land, more than 3,000 feet, to be exact. The longest runway at Peter O. Knight is 3.405 feet long; according to one eyewitness, the C-17 stopped with almost no room to spare (h/t Aviation News in the Raw):

“I was supposed to leave about five minutes after that plane landed,” said Ryan Gucwa, 29, a corporate pilot from Tampa. He was scheduled to pick up passengers at Tampa International and get them to Georgia on Friday afternoon. Instead, he caught a cellphone video of the C-17′s amazing landing.

“It stopped about 6 feet from the end of the runway; any farther and it would have been grass,” Gucwa said.

And that prompted immediate speculation as to how the transport aircraft would leave the airport. When a Boeing 727 made an "accidental" landing at Knight Airport back in the 1980s, it had to be disassembled and trucked away; the runways were simply too short for the airliner to take off.

But that wasn't the case for the C-17. A few hours later, after its load had been significantly reduced, the airlifter took off for the short hop to MacDill. Aviation News in the Raw has the video of that event.

A spokesman at MacDill said he wasn't sure why the transport landed at Knight instead of the Air Force base. The C-17, with 19 crew members and 23 passengers, was returning from Southwest Asia when it touched down at Peter O. Knight airport around 1:20 Friday afternoon. It finally arrived at MacDill Friday evening, after seven hours on the ground at the general aviation airport.

One thing is certain: this will be the last flight for the C-17 pilot and co-pilot until the Air Force can figure out what went wrong. Crew complacency is the most likely culprit.
ADDENDUM: The aircraft and crew are assigned to the 305th Mobility Wing at McGuire AFB, New Jersey. A spokesman there declined comment on the incident. The normal crew for a C-17 is three, a pilot, co-pilot and loadmaster. The large number of crew members on board suggests the flight was a rotator mission, bringing crews back to McGuire after a deployment to Southwest Asia.


Vigilis said...

A fascinating story with a bit too many holes to be a credible account. This much is clear:

+ The C-17 landed at TPF Friday evening with 19 declared souls aboard.

+ MacDill and McGuire AFB spokesmen have declined comment.

A few thoughts...
Did the C-17 communicate with TPF flight control for landing instructions? Wasn't it independently tracked on both TPF and MacDill AFB radars? No flight plan?

Were the 16 (declared passengers) U.S. citizens? Did they depart TPF when the C-17 took off?

If this was not really a mistaken landing, what might have been the true purpose of this unusual landing?

The best part of the story is that the identies of the "flight crew" will be anonymous and no careers need suffer. Very pat, very secret.

Captain Ned said...

Looking at a Google Earth view of the Tampa area, it's easy to see how the mistake can be made by commercial/general aviation pilots who mistakenly land at MacDill, but it's a lot harder to explain a military pilot overflying MacDill and landing at the civy strip.

Beeker said...

If you look at the Airport in google maps, you can see the air force runway is almost directly in line with this runway, with the same designation, just a few miles away on the other side of the bay. The runway he landed on doesnt appear to have instrument landing capabilities, so maybe he was bringing it in the old fashioned way and aimed for the wrong strip.

Corky Boyd said...

Apparently landing at the wrong field is more common than most think. When I checked the internet for one I am familiar with (a TWA 727 destined for Columbus Ohio, but mistakenly landed on a muddy grass strip belonging to Ohio State Univ. in 1967), I found this website that documents a vast number of these errors:

Interestingly a similar Tampa/McDill mistake happened in 1980.

“June 20, 1980 - A Delta Air Lines 727, bound for Tampa, Florida (TPA), mistakenly lands at MacDill Air Force Base. Link. See also Tom Zucco, "The Official Tampa Bay Map of the Weird," St. Petersburg Times, October 18, 1991.”