A LATAM Airbus A320 operating a flight in Brazil nearly landed at the wrong airport, in a completely different city, as reported by The Aviation Herald (and thanks to reader Carlos for flagging this). How could that happen?
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LATAM A320 attempts to land at wrong airport
This incident occurred on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, and involves a 16-year-old LATAM Airbus A320 with the registration code PR-MHM. The jet was scheduled to operate flight LA4640, the short 260-mile domestic flight from Sao Paulo (GRU) to Sao Jose Do Rio Preto (SJP). However, as you might notice from looking at the map of the flight, the aircraft had a rather unusual path.
While on approach to Sao Jose Do Rio Preto, the pilots reported a GPS mismatch (meaning the info on their GPS didn’t match up with what they were expecting). The pilots informed the Sao Jose air traffic controller that they were beginning their RNAV approach procedures for the airport (RNAV stands for “area navigation,” and it’s a type of approach procedure using instruments).
Given the distance from the airport, the Sao Jose air traffic controller told the pilots to contact the approach frequency. However, the crew didn’t do that, and instead called the Sao Jose air traffic controller again, informing that they were doing a 360 degree turn to descend and lose altitude.
The controller again told the pilots to contact the approach frequency, but the pilots declined, stating they were busy with the approach and had the airport in sight.
As it turns out, they were approaching the completely wrong airport. They were actually lining up to land at Catanduva Aerodrome, located in a completely different city. Furthermore, the airport they were lining up at was only a small general aviation airport, and not a commercial airport. While the runway at their intended destination was 5,381 feet long, the runway they were lining up with was only 3,232 feet long. The two airports are around 60km apart.
At this point the air traffic controller advised that they were approaching the wrong airport. At an altitude of 1,000 feet above ground level, the pilots finally initiated a go around, and flew to the correct airport, where it landed without further incident, around 15 minutes later.
How could pilots almost land at the wrong airport?
It’s rather alarming when two commercial airline pilots almost land a jet full of passengers at the wrong airport, quite a distance from their intended destination. How could something like this happen? I’m sure an investigation will be performed, but here are a few thoughts, based on the communication and the flight path:
- While the cities are quite a distance apart, the general airport orientations seem to be similar, and the runways at the two airports are at a similar angle, so visually I can see how pilots might have gotten confused, if they ignored all other hints
- It sure seems like the pilots got visual of the Catanduva Aerodrome, assumed it was their destination airport, and then just had confirmation bias the entire way down, ignoring all the signs that something may be wrong
- Presumably the pilots were confused, but rather than stepping back and considering the situation, they were frazzled overworked, and doubled down, as they performed a 360 degree turn to lose altitude, and assumed the GPS mismatch was due to some technical error, rather than due to their own mistake; they even refused to switch frequencies, claiming they were too busy
Every once in a while there’s a story about pilots nearly landing on a taxiway rather than a runway, or landing at an airport nearby to their intended destination. However, this has to be one of the most extreme stories we’ve seen, as these two cities aren’t even that close to one another.
Earlier this week, a LATAM Airbus A320 operating a short flight nearly landed at the wrong airport. The pilots lined up to land at an airport about 60km from their intended destination, and only executed a go around 1,000 feet above the ground.
This is a pretty rough mistake all-around, when you consider how many signs were clearly ignored for something like this to happen. At least this was caught before the plane touched down, because there could’ve been a very different ending, given the runway length.
What do you make of this LATAM A320 incident?