For the past many months there has been a hue and cry about pilots relying too much on automation and spending too much time with their heads down in the cockpit.
Well, there is at least one Boeing “Dreamlifter” crew that wishes it had spent more time looking inside their cockpit. If they had, they would have landed at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita instead of at Jabara a few miles to the north.
A visual approach to the south at McConnell at night is a perfect setup for mistakes by pilots who depend on looking out the window instead of consulting all of the electronic aids available to them. The runways at McConnell run north-south, but so do the runways at Beech Field and Jabara directly to the north.
Not that long ago Beech Field was a compact airport and Jabarra was barely a path of a runway less than 3,000 feet long in the middle of farm fields. But Beech acquired land to the north of the original runway and built a new one that is 8,001 feet long. A tunnel for the road goes under the runway. It may be the only highway tunnel in all of Kansas.
Jabara—named for a local fighter pilot hero—also expanded with a very nice 100-foot wide north-south runway that is 6,101 feet long. The Jabara runway is just over three miles north of Beech, and Beech is less than five miles north of McConnell.
So there you are, in the dark, cleared for a visual approach to McConnell in nice weather looking for a north-south runway. In a span of less than eight miles there are three long north-south runways. The last one, the one farthest south, McConnell, is 12,000 feet long, but at night a 6,101 foot long runway looks pretty big. At least as big as a 12,000-foot runway in the distance.
As we all know the crew of the Dreamlifter picked the Jabara runway. There was a bright PAPI for glideslope guidance. McConnell’s Runway 19L, the actual target runway, also has a PAPI on the left.
Runway 18 at Jabara has a magnetic heading of 183 degrees. Runway 19L at McConnell points south at 188 degrees. A difference that would be very hard to determine by looking out the window.
The first half or so of Runway 18 at Jabara runs up hill so with some good hand flying skills the crew of the modified Boeing 747 had no problem getting down and stopped even though the runway was half as long as they expected. These are clearly pilots who have no problems with fundamental airplane handling and control.
But the truly sad and embarrassing aspect of this incident is that the now evil cockpit automation would have prevented the incident had the crew relied on automation instead of their eyeballs and manual flying skills.
I feel certain they had the instrument approach to McConnell dialed in because that is simply standard procedure no matter how good the visibility. The McConnell runways are served by both ILS and GPS approaches so perfect guidance to the touchdown point on the McConnell runway was available if only they had looked at the instruments instead of out the window.
My point here is that there are no simple solutions to safe and precise flying. Yes, the critics have a point that we pilots need to maintain our manual flying skills. But we also need to use and rely on the cockpit systems that have made flying so much safer than it was even 20 years ago.
There have been a few accidents where pilots followed inaccurate guidance from a mistuned nav receiver, or wrong fix entered into an FMS. But there have been so many hundreds, or even thousands more accidents where pilots flew the wrong profile while looking out the window for landmarks, or even as in this case, looking for runway lights.
When I first moved to Kansas City years ago Fairfax Airport, one of the oldest in the country, was operational on the Kansas side of the Missouri river. Kansas City Downtown Airport was just a couple miles south of Fairfax on the Missouri side. Both had primary north-south runways and control towers. Almost weekly a pilot would be talking to one tower and cleared to land there but end up on the wrong side of the river. That was when we really depended on our visual and manual skills, and they failed often.
So, yes, let’s all keep our heads up and out of the cockpit, but only after we have looked at all available guidance to know what we are looking at and where we are going. Especially at night.