Report: 2 planes landed at Elkhart instead of South Bend - Fox 28: South Bend, Elkhart IN News, Weather, Sports

Report: 2 planes landed at Elkhart instead of South Bend

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South Bend Airport and Elkhart Airport are about 15 miles apart South Bend Airport and Elkhart Airport are about 15 miles apart
South Bend (left) and Elkhart (right) both have runways 9-27 and a more north-south runway (Courtesy: Google Maps) South Bend (left) and Elkhart (right) both have runways 9-27 and a more north-south runway (Courtesy: Google Maps)

A check of the Aviation Safety Reporting System database by FOX28 News shows two planes have mistakenly landed at Elkhart's airport instead of South Bend. The database also shows pilots of a third flight to South Bend recognized they were on approach to Elkhart before landing.

The Associated Press searched the database, which is managed by NASA, and found that on at least 150 flights, U.S. commercial air carriers have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake.

In two cases where planes landed, the incidents were reported to have happened overnight, when towers at South Bend and Elkhart are generally closed.

The most recent incident happened in 2003. According to the report from the Captain of the regional jet, they were cleared by air traffic controllers from Chicago for a visual approach to South Bend's east-west runway. Controllers stopped tracking the plane with radar and switched them to the South Bend control tower frequency. The pilots reported on the tower frequency they were inbound on a long final approach. The captain says when they completed their landing checklist, they found themselves on a short final. The captain says everything looked normal, until he noticed a display that showed a distance to the airport that didn't match. While the captain tried to verify the plane's position, the first officer, who was flying the plane, landed. On landing, they found they had landed in Elkhart. The captain says they had no way to contact their company about the situation and no place to shelter the passengers, so he made the decision to fly to South Bend after ensuring the runway at Elkhart was long enough.

The other mistaken landing happened in 1996. The crew of a DC-9 cargo plane heading from Billings, Montana to Wilmington, Ohio says they were diverted by their company to South Bend. The captain reported they were initially given an approach by Chicago controllers to runway 9 at South Bend, then quickly changed to runway 27. The captain says they saw an airport in the right configuration in the position controllers told them to look and when the crew used a system that allows them to control the airport's lighting with a radio, they came on. It was not until they landed that the crew recognized they were at Elkhart instead of South Bend. The captain says they took off from Elkhart for South Bend after checking in with their company. The captain's report says he and his co-pilot may have been fatigued after a day that started in Anchorage, Alaska and just a short 30 minute stop in Billings. The report also points out similarities between the airports in Elkhart and South Bend. Both have runways 9-27 and a north-south oriented runway.

Being more familiar with the area may have prevented another mistaken landing. In 1997, a captain says he was flying with a co-pilot for the first time on a flight to South Bend. The captain says he told his first officer he thought he had South Bend in sight. His first officer reported this to controllers, who cleared the plane to start approaching the airport. While on final, the captain says he realized from prior flights that he was approaching the wrong city, which he confirmed with his instruments. The captain of the flight also pointed out the similar configuration of the two airports. He also says he should have checked his instruments sooner and that approach controllers could have asked the crew to verify the position of the plane.

Reports to the Aviation Safety Reporting System are voluntary, so it is possible other flights may have landed at the wrong airport, but were not reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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