NTSB: Delta landing at wrong airport due to pilot error

The mistaken landing of a Delta Air Lines flight at an Air Force base in South Dakota last summer was due to errors by pilots who had little experience flying into the intended airport, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.

Delta Flight 2485 last July took off from Minneapolis/St. Paul and landed at Ellsworth Air Force Base with 123 passengers. The Airbus A320 was supposed to land at nearby Rapid City Regional Airport, which is several miles away.

The NTSB report, completed late last month, said the plane was at a higher altitude than normal for landing when the captain saw an airport and started the process to lower the landing gear.

However, the captain likely had the Air Force base airfield in sight rather than Rapid City’s airport, according to the NTSB report.

“During interviews, the crew stated they misheard the controller’s warning” about the nearby Air Force base, the report said.

The first officer “said to the captain ‘you got the right one in sight?’ The captain replied ‘I hope I do,’” according to the report.

“Both crewmembers had little to no experience flying into either [Rapid City’s airport] or [Ellsworth],” the report said.

The captain, 60, had been hired as a pilot with Republic Airways in 1986 before it merged with Northwest Airlines, which later merged with Delta. The first officer, 51, had flown for Delta since 2000. Both were based in Salt Lake City.

Delta’s records show the captain had flown into Rapid City once in 2014, while the first officer had never flown into Rapid City.

The pilots did not verify their position before beginning the landing approach, and they switched off the autopilot and other systems that could have alerted them to the situation, the NTSB report said.

Focused on the wrong runway, the captain “increased the descent rate as high as 1,200 feet per minute, resulting in an unstable approach,” the NTSB report says. “The captain said ‘this is the most [expletive] approach I’ve made in a while.’”

“The crew realized their mistake just prior to touchdown, but considered it was safer to complete the landing at that point.”

There were no injuries and no damage to the plane. After the landing, the flight continued on to the Rapid City airport. Delta offered passengers “a gesture of apology for the inconvenience.”

The pilots were temporarily taken off duty following the incident. The captain has since retired and the first officer is back flying for Delta following some training. 

About 600 wrong airport landings or near landings have been reported over the past 20 years, according to the NTSB report. 

Of those, six were Rapid City-bound flights that landed or nearly landed at Ellsworth. Only two were airline flights; the rest were general aviation flights.

Ellsworth officials said confusion “continues to be fairly common, although the problem is typically detected and corrected” by air traffic control or the crew before landing, according to the NTSB report.

Other recent wrong airport landings include a Southwest Airlines flight in 2014 that landed at the wrong airport in Branson, Mo.


AJC Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi keeps you updated on the latest news about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta Air Lines and the airline industry in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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