The ATSB has dissected the confused performance of two REX pilots who set up their SAAB 340 turbo-prop to land on a coal loader they had mistaken for Newcastle Airport in an incident in November 2012.
The small airliner eventually landed safely at the airport after being spotted by an air traffic controller about 11 kilometres from the airport in failing daylight made worse by a cloud bank obscuring the western horizon below which the sun had just set.
This wasn’t a simple visual mistake either. The ATSB report details the concerns of the first officer over the capacity of the captain to identify the airport, and records in what must be almost painful detail for other pilots and the airline the intricate sequence of errors made on the flight deck as well as providing helpful comparison photos of the coal loader and airport.
Data from the aircraft’s flight data recorder showed that the aircraft commenced a shallow descent from 1,500 ft on a westerly heading and then turned right. During the turn, the crew commenced configuring the aircraft for landing.
After turning right onto a base leg, the FO was unable to resolve his confusion about the aircraft’s position and handed control to the captain. The captain reported that after taking control, they could not see the runway, but had formed a strong belief that they were in the airport environment. Being unable to discern the runway, the captain thought that they may have overshot the runway centre-line. The FO reported that after handing over control to the captain, he became aware that the aircraft was not positioned as intended, having observed the lighting and width of the coal loading and storage facility and noted their distance from the airport was greater than expected.
At about 1932, the tower controller offered to increase the intensity of the runway approach lighting. The controllers reported realising that the crew had probably lost situation awareness and, at the approach controller’s suggestion, the tower controller advised the crew that they were 6 NM (11 km) south-west of the airport tracking to the east. Recorded radar surveillance data also showed the aircraft tracking in a south-easterly direction toward the coal facility. When told they were not at the airport, the captain immediately requested radar vectors to resolve the uncertainty. As the tower controller was not qualified to provide radar vectors, a heading of left 020° was suggested. At about the same time, the crew turned onto a southerly heading and descended to 680 ft.
While the aircraft was tracking south, heading toward the boundary of controlled airspace, the approach controller advised the tower controller to instruct the crew of TRX to initiate a climb and pass traffic advice to the crew about another aircraft 5 NM (9 km) ahead and outside controlled airspace. The tower controller advised the crew to climb, but did not issue a safety alert or a clearance as that would have necessitated a coordinated handover to the approach controller and a radio frequency change. Instead, the controllers elected to keep TRX on the tower frequency and under tower control as visual meteorological conditions existed and both controllers could see the aircraft.
Information from the flight data recorder showed that the aircraft climbed to about 900 ft. The captain reported that engine power was increased but they did not commence a go-around or reconfigure the aircraft.
The approach controller reported suggesting that the tower controller advise the crew to turn north in order to locate the airport. The captain complied and adopted a northerly heading before requesting further guidance as they could still not see the runway. The tower controller turned the runway lighting to stage 6 (full brightness) and continued to provide position information until satisfied that the crew had sighted runway 12.
At about 1935, after further guidance, the captain identified the runway and approach lights and positioned the aircraft for a landing on runway 12. The aircraft landed at about 1937, 14 minutes before last light. After landing, the crew advised the aerodrome controller that they were unfamiliar with locating the airport ‘at night’.
The ATSB report also recounts other incidents in which airports have not been correctly visually identified by approaching airliners, including the 1989 incident in which an Australian Airlines Boeing 737 pulled up only 170 feet above the ground when it thought it was landing at Mackay Airport but had descended on an adjacent highway instead.
The report outlines the steps REX has taken to prevent such a stuff up in the future. This incident might seem amusing on a quick reading of the ATSB summary. The full report, linked to the summary page, makes it clear that this was a serious incident, and responded to as such by the airline.
A loss of situational awareness in failing light approaching an airport is never funny, nor trivial.