Permission to land

From the files “stories that started Chicken Wings Comics”:

In the mid-nineties when I was working for a little flight school in Camarillo, CA we had a similar incident with one of our students. She was on her way to Santa Maria (KSMX) with her little Cessna 172 on one of her first longer cross-country flights. In a “Classic Chuck” move, she ran “a little” off course to the west of Santa Maria and instead lined up with Vandenberg AFB on her decent. How she couldn’t keep the two apart is a little of a mystery to me since a quick glance at your approach plates or sectional would reveal that one is your average Class D airport with two intersecting runways of 5,000 to 8,000ft length and inland, while the other one is one gigantic 3-mile-long Spaceshuttle runway directly on the coast. But in her defense, they both are “Runway 30” and only about 10nm apart from each other.

What added to the confusion was that the KSMX tower controller having nothing else in his airspace at the time, yet not being able to see the little Cessna, cleared her to land on Runway 30 anyways most likely figuring the student pilot was further out than she claimed and giving her the benefit of the doubt. In the mid-nineties we were still a few years away from the Foreflight App and their derivatives we now get to enjoy so student pilot estimation of distances could vary quite a bit in those days.

So she landed the little Cessna on the big Spaceshuttle runway and immediately got surrounded by Jeeps and thrown into Air Force Jail. They house all kinds of secret planes and missiles there, and they don’t mess around (or at least didn’t at the time). This was also before GPS and cell phones, so we had the aircraft overdue for a while which caused major concern until she was able to make a phone call and tell us what happened. The Air Force eventually let her go after a whole day when they were re-assured, she was not a terrorist and really had no clue where exactly she was, but it took some doing on all sides. She eventually brought the plane back, together with an instructor we sent to get her since she was a little rattled by the whole experience. I’m certain this will also mess with your self confidence just a little and you might start wondering if you might need a few additional lessons in navigation. Come to think of it, I am not sure she ever finished her license …


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9 comments on “Permission to land
  1. Dysko says:

    Something similar happens in Italy. Brescia’s airports, Montichiari and Ghedi, have runways of similar length, with the same heading and are only 3,5 km away (during WW2 the Luftwaffe even built a taxiway to link the 2 airports). It is actually quite frequent for novice pilots to land in the wrong airport.
    Now, I should tell you that, while Montichiari is a civilian airport with mostly general aviation traffic and rare cargo flights, Ghedi is an active Italian Air Force Tornado bombers base, and the only Italian Air Force airbase said to store nuclear weapons (there would also be Aviano, but it is used by USAFE).
    Stories of student pilots landing on the wrong one and being quickly surrounded by military trucks are quite common.

  2. JP Kalishek says:

    Thanks for the message in my book! They arrived today. I’ll not tell Chuck about the Corsair.

    Once at New Orleans Lakefront airport, a sea plane or flying boat decided to land in the lake, then called asking where the ramp was to roll up onto the airport grounds and to a hanger . . . there is none. “You saying I gotta take off and land on land?”
    “You got wheels? Then yes.”

    in a similar note, a sea plane was landing at Patterson Louisiana and was going to use the paved runway, and last minute decided to use the water strip, but forgot to retract the wheels on the floats, and they dug in, causing it to turn turtle.
    I drove past on HWY 90 before they got the plane out of the canal, and could see the floats in the air, rolling gear in the land use position.

  3. Mako says:

    I did this! On my first long solo I called in to tower and got cleared to land at what turned out to be totally the wrong airport (my FIRST hint SHOULD have been that my planned destination had two runways and the airfield I was approaching only had one… and also that the literal name was painted on said single runway. I overflew that one without landing (barely), called up flight following for vectors because I was so flustered I couldn’t figure out where I was by the charts, and the was STILL so flustered I turned 180 degrees from the wrong heading once they tried to get me back on course. Got the dubious pleasure of ATC having to say, “ma’am you need to turn around and go the other direction,” once they figured out what I’d done. I found the correct airfield and promptly got lost on the taxiways, and I think actually had a runway incursion that they were kind enough not to slap me for (luckily it’s was JUST ME flying for miles with no other traffic anywhere remotely close), but I got the hell out of there pretty fast after that. Everyone involved was supremely patient and as kind as they could be with a real idiot in the air that day. Not my proudest moment flying, for sure, but a story I told a lot to reassure soloing students at the flight school I ended up working at for nearly a decade. The, ‘see, even /I/ made it home OK’ moral was generally reassuring because I don’t think ANY of them ever ever came close to screwing up that bad, and they stopped worrying about their own insufficiencies.
    On the upshot, I didn’t land at a military run airfield, or bust any airspace, so I DID get home without getting arrested, at least!

  4. Franck Mée says:

    Here in France, we have quite a few “mixed” airports, where a runway is shared by a military base and GA aircraft, usually on opposite sides. So it’s not uncommon for unfamiliar pilots to land on the proper runway, but then exit left instead of right and get a nice army truck to take them back to the other side of the airfield…

  5. mike says:

    @JP: Glad you like the book! Tell all your friends!
    @Mako: Great story! Thanks for sharing. And you did exactly what I always told all of my students. Use and share the experience so everybody else can learn from it rather than be embarrassed and try to bury it forever 😉

    When I was a young teen working at the local airport in Austria, they had a tire testing center next to the airport with lots of concrete courses and also straight lines. I think we had a plane mistake the tire test center for the airport at least once a year. Landing there was easy, but the takeoff was more complicated with this being Europe and all of their regulations…

    But for Chuck. I think he just spaced calling the tower thinking about something else again I am sure…

  6. Andy says:

    Here in Honolulu, we share the runways with Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Navy/Air Force/Space Force. Landing in a Cessna can be quite the experience as fighters are taking off or landing right next to you. The first time I saw them, a pair of F22s flanked me on both sides and then landed ahead of me. When I landed, I kept waiting for the call from the tower, “Cessna X, meet the Cops at your parking spot…” LOL

  7. Frank E. Merrill says:

    Andy, I was a primary flight student at PHNL in the late 70s, flying out of Air Service before they built the reef runway. On a night practice flight I had landed on 8L and was cleared by ground to cross 8R and taxi to the GA ramp. As I started to cross 8R I looked up the glideslope at a huge row of landing lights, and called the tower to clarify my crossing clearance, which was assured. I gunned the li’l C-152 and scooted across the runway like a mongoose, lookming over my shoulder at the looming landing lights. I watched those lights get closer as I taxiied to the ramp, shut down, and even tied down. Turns out to have been a C-5 Galaxy, and he must have been 30 miles out when my terrified student eyes first saw his lights!

  8. Tom says:

    There are quite a number of such mix-ups. In the area where I learned to fly it was Bitburg (General Aviation field) and Spangdahlem Air Base.

    I also remember reading about a B747 Dreamlifter landing at the wrong field and barely able to get airborne again after unloading the cargo and removing all but minimum fuel.

    And then there was a motor-glider pilot who mistook the Audi test track for the Ingolstadt/Manching airport. It turned out that his landing gear was not up to Audi standards, as he set down on the suspension test surface.

  9. Mark Johnson says:

    My brother attended Perdue Univ. in the ’70’s. A friend rented a 150 with my brother tagging along. They flew to the Playboy club in Chicago. When they landed, they thought it odd to have bleachers on both sides of the runway. They landed on the drag strip. After realizing their mistake, they took off and landed on the proper runway.

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