WICHITA FALLS, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Sheppard Air Force Base officials said they went above and beyond proper procedures to divert aircraft from closed runways Jan. 21. Base personnel met with media to discuss the incident, which was the second event in recent months where an airliner went back to Dallas because of allegations of darkened runways.
On Jan. 21, American Airlines flight 3339 departed from Dallas-Fort Worth airport at 9:41 p.m. and was in airspace above Wichita Falls Regional Airport at 10:04 p.m.
AA spokespeople claim the pilot did not see any illuminated runways and returned the plane to DFW.
There are four runways at the joint SAFB-Wichita Falls Regional airfield. Three runways belong to the Air Force and one, 17-35, is leased to the city.
During the base's operating hours, there are at least five personnel directing air and ground traffic for all of the runways.
"Normal operating hours are 0600 to 2100 (6 a.m. to 9 p.m.) Monday through Friday and 12 to 5 Sunday," Capt. Charles Chapot said.
Base staff continuously leaves the lights on for Runway 17-35, the city-leased runway closest to the airport.
A Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) alert was sent out Jan. 21 informing pilots that two of the base's runways were closed for observation. NOTAMs are available through the Federal Aviation Administration website for military and civilian pilots to inform them about any safety or procedural changes at each airfield.
"NOTAMs are supposed to be checked by every pilot before every flight," Keeton said.
Keeton said Jan. 21, SAFB Airfield Operations sent out notice of the closed runways in at least three different ways; they released a NOTAM, notified the airport dispatcher and called the Fort Worth aviation control center. Airfield Manager Tommy Hoover said that night two runways had obstructions so they were closed with the lights turned off. A NOTAM instructed pilots to use Runway 17-35. No SAFB staff was at the tower at the time of the incident.
An investigation by both base and Wichita Falls personnel determined the runway lights for Runway 1735 were illuminated the night of Jan. 21.
A similar incident that happened in April was attributed to pilot error.
During that incident, an ExpressJet pilot, a subcontractor for American Eagle, attempted to land on a Sunday night using pilot-controlled lighting on a NOTAM-closed runway.
After an investigation into that incident, Keeton said lights for Runway 17-35 were on Friday when staff left for the weekend and were still on when they came back Monday morning.
Burrus said it is not uncommon for a runway at the airfield to be closed, and each time there was a closure, a NOTAM was always filed with the national aviation database.
"We are all professionals here. We go by the books and there is a stringent set of rules and regulations to follow," Keeton said.
Having a joint military-civilian airfield can be a challenge at times, but SAFB staff said they have a good working relationship with the city and try to be good neighbors.
Cause of the most recent incident has not yet been determined.
NOTAMs for Sheppard's airfield can be viewed at www. notams.jcs.mil/ with the airfield code KSPS.
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