TAMPA — MacDill Air Force Base has changed procedures in its air traffic control tower after an Air Force cargo plane carrying the commander of military operations in the Middle East and South Asia landed at the wrong airport last July.
Though an Air Force investigation took the flight crew to task, Marine Gen. James Mattis and everyone else on board made it off safely.
There was no damage either to the C-17A Globemaster III or Peter O. Knight Airport, where the plane landed by mistake and just short of the water on July 20.
But the investigation found that MacDill, the jet's intended destination, falls short when it comes to warning incoming flights that the two airports are situated just four nautical miles apart and in direct alignment, with two runways carrying the same identification number.
The "frequency of errors and confusion at the pair of airfields suggests that the Air Traffic Control might aid in mitigating this threat," according to the 11-page Hazardous Air Traffic Report, obtained by the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act.
"MacDill Tower currently has no preventative measures in place to mitigate the risk of aircrews proceeding to the incorrect airport, or even to ensure controllers are alert to the known hazard."
Because of the landing mistake in July, an updated reporting procedure was established "in an effort to mitigate airport identification issues and further increase situational awareness in the vicinity of MacDill, Peter O. Knight and other local airports," said Capt. Regina Gillis, a spokeswoman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill's host unit.
New procedures now require aircrew to contact the base air traffic control tower when their aircraft is within five nautical miles of MacDill, Gillis said in an email to the Tribune.
"Reporting this distance to the airfield requires operating cockpit instruments and cannot be done visually," she said. "Aircraft will not be cleared to land until contact with the tower at five nautical miles. This procedure will alleviate traffic arriving from the northeast, misidentifying Peter O. Knight as MacDill."
All tower personnel have been trained on the new procedure, Gillis said.
MacDill routinely coordinates with five local airports – Peter O. Knight, Tampa Executive, Tampa International, St. Pete/Clearwater and Albert Whitted in St. Petersburg – as well as the Federal Aviation Administration. This procedure is part of the Midair Collision Avoidance Program followed by the base, she said.
"This program provides guidance for airspace awareness around MacDill and the Tampa Bay area airspace," she said.
Gillis said 16,000 aircraft land safely at MacDill annually.
The working relationship among the MacDill Wing Flight Safety Office, its air traffic control operators and surrounding airports "delivers the mutual benefit of coordinating efforts and de-conflicting operations for better and safer use of busy airspace."
Actions also have been taken by the 305th Air Mobility Wing, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., which was the home of the flight crew that made the landing mistake.
"Our pilots are stringently selected and undergo intensive training and retraining to hone their flying skills to ensure mishaps occur as infrequently as possible," said Maj. Angel Lopez, spokesman fore the command.
The pilot's training, in fact, allowed for a quick correction and a safe landing despite the shorter runway, Lopez said.
An internal investigation was conducted, he said, "and actions were taken to ensure issues such as this do not occur in the future."
Left unresolved, the confusion over MacDill and Peter O. Knight presents safety problems, one aviation expert said,.
"It increases the probability of a wrong airport landing," said William Waldock, an aircraft accident investigator for Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, the nation's pre-eminent private aviation institution.
"The risk comes from what happens if you land at the wrong airport."
The confusion is a bigger potential problem for Peter O. Knight than for MacDill, said Deric Dymerski, president of Atlas Aviation, on-base operator fore the municipal airport, located on Davis Islands.
"If a C 17 landed and someone else was on short final approach, or an airplane was on the runway area, the wing vortex could flip the aircraft over," said Dymerski.
Dymerski said he has had a very good working relationship over the years with MacDill, including routine safety meetings.
But this wasn't the first time a military aircraft landed at his airport.
A Brazilian C-130 cargo plane mistakenly landed there March 14, 2005.