The Obvious Preflight Actions Are Not Always That Obvious

When I heard the Airbus contact the Goodyear tower I knew the next radio transmission I received would be a request from the tower to extend my downwind to make room for the Airbus. It was the end of a long day of instructing in a twin-engine airplane; I was getting tired and looking forward to getting the plane on the ground and stepping out to stretch my legs. Sure enough, after the tower cleared the Airbus to land on Runway 21 the controller contacted us, and we were instructed to “extend our downwind to follow an Airbus on a four-mile final.” Our day was going to be a little longer.

As I scanned the sky in an attempt to locate the Airbus I was thinking about the new challenges this A320 had added to what was, only a few minutes before, a simple landing. In particular, I was concerned about the wake turbulence that would be created by the arriving jet. I would need to follow the wake turbulence avoidance procedures and carefully observe his touchdown point.

But to my frustration, I could not find the Airbus. It was a perfect Arizona day with unlimited visibility. How could I be having so much trouble locating an airliner, which by now would have to be within a few miles of my location? I asked the student if she was visual with the traffic and she responded “negative” with a shaking of the head and shrug of the shoulders.

At this point I heard a radio call unlike any I had ever heard from an ATC facility. The controller, sounding urgent, keyed the microphone and directed the Airbus pilot to initiate an immediate go-around concluding the transmission with, “You are about to land on Runway 19 at Glendale.”

That call from the tower immediately explained why the student and I could not see the A320; the Airbus was attempting to land at the wrong airport.

We were nearly to our parking spot on the ramp in front of our flight school before the airbus landed at Goodyear. The last radio transmission I heard from the tower to the Airbus as he/she taxied to the ramp was a request to write down a phone number “to contact the tower for possible pilot deviation.”

So how do pilots almost land an Airbus at the wrong airport and find themselves facing a pilot deviation? The seeds for what could have been a disastrous situation were planted before the pilots ever left the ground.

The Airbus had departed from Canada on an IFR flight to Goodyear. Most IFR flights end with an approach that, at a minimum, places the aircraft in the airport environment and potentially in a position to begin the landing flare. Searching around and attempting to locate an airport 15 miles away is not even a consideration for most pilots on an IFR flight. Unfortunately for our A320 pilots that is exactly how their flight concluded.

The Phoenix area very rarely has weather that requires an instrument approach. It is quite common for the busy Phoenix Approach controllers to ask a pilot if he/she has the destination airport in sight when the flight is ten or fifteen miles from the airport. If the answer is “affirmative” the controllers will cancel the IFR clearance, and the flight will continue under visual flight rules (VFR) to the destination.

Phoenix is covered by a Class B airspace and the area is littered with airports surrounding the primary airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor. On the western side of the airspace sit three Class D airports- Glendale, Luke AFB, and Goodyear; all with runways that align in a general north/south orientation.

When the Airbus pilots left Canada they most likely believed they had all the information they needed to complete the flight. They probably didn’t expect to need

a Sectional Chart or EFB app with VFR charts to fly the last 10 miles of their flight. Without those tools and apparently lacking a mental image of the environment they were in, they found themselves preparing to land at the wrong airport.

I have noticed over the years that many pilots rely solely on the controllers on the ground to be responsible for their navigation during an IFR flight. These pilots believe the controllers will tell them where to go and when.

But it is every pilot’s responsibility to thoroughly prepare for the airport environment of their destination. The FAA makes this clear in 14CFR 91.103, the regulation that defines preflight requirements. The first sentence of the regulation states a pilot should “become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” The key word here is all.

Before departing on a VFR or IFR flight, study the airports and airspace that surround your destination and review the airport diagram for your destination so you will have a mental image of the airport environment prior to entering the area.

If you are flying IFR always have some form of VFR chart for the route on board the aircraft, either paper or electronic. Likewise, if you are on a VFR flight and instrument rated, it is a good idea to have the instrument charts and approach plates pertinent to the route available in the event the weather deteriorates.

We have chosen an activity that does not tolerate mistakes. The FAA does not care if the PIC is a high time airline captain or a light sport hobbyist. They expect you to have all  the information about your destination airport. If you are ever called before the FAA to explain why you violated airspace and nearly landed at the wrong airport, your answer should not be: “We were on an IFR flight, so we didn’t think we would need VFR charts.”

In their eyes, there is only one person responsible for what occurs on a flight and that person is the pilot in command (PIC).

I have no idea what happened to the Airbus PIC who almost landed at the wrong airport and violated a Class D airspace, but my guess is it was not a pleasant experience when he or she sat down with the FAA.

Like me, the Airbus pilots just wanted to land and be done with the day. Unfortunately for them, when they landed and received a phone number for the FAA, their day was just beginning.


See MySkyForce Module 2, Lesson 1 for how to avoid wake turbulence and Module 3 Lesson 2 for how to be prepared for a cross country flight.

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