Skip to main content

Feds explain how a Delta flight from MSP wound up at the wrong airport

One South Dakota airport was mistaken for another.

"Well, here we are – welcome to Rapid City Regional Airp... Wait a minute ... This looks like an Air Force base!"

Something a little like that happened to about 130 people aboard a Delta Airlines flight from the Twin Cities last summer.

Eleven months later the National Transportation Safety Board has finished its investigation and released a final report on how an Airbus 320 bound for Rapid City, South Dakota, wound up at Ellsworth Air Force Base instead.

Their conclusion? The pilots messed up.

The report gets more specific and detailed than that, of course, but ultimately investigators said it was a case of pilot error by the captain and first officer. They were flying at an altitude a little too high and they didn't use all of their navigation information, the NTSB says. So they didn't realize until they were landing that they'd flown to the wrong airport.

Only 6 miles apart

The runway at Ellsworth is only six miles northwest of the Rapid City airport. But that's why the pilots were warned not to confuse them.

The NTSB report notes that the flight information Delta provides to flight crews on the Twin Cities-to-Rapid City route mentions how close the Air Force base is and says "These airports have similar runway alignment and can be mistaken for one another."

Also, the air traffic controller gave them a verbal reminder when they were cleared for landing. The NTSB report says the pilots realized their mistake just before the plane touched down at Ellsworth but they decided it was safest to just complete the landing. They soon took off again and flew the six miles to Rapid City.

The report says neither the captain nor the first officer had ever had an accident or incident in their flying careers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says the captain has since retired, while the first officer got some additional training and is now flying with Delta again.

Wrong airport landings are not that unusual

These pilots were not the first to confuse the Ellsworth and Rapid City airports. The NTSB says there have been six times when planes headed for one of those airports mistakenly landed at the other.

And this is definitely not the only place in the country where these errors happen. Over the last 20 years there have been about 600 wrong airport landings or near landings that were voluntarily reported, the NTSB says.

They've offered these tips for flight crews on how to make sure you're heading to the correct runway.

Next Up

Screen Shot 2021-12-02 at 7.59.52 AM

More than 2 years after announcing, Duck Donuts finally opens at MOA

The grand opening of the new location took place Wednesday.

unsplash - school girl students

St. Paul is closing 6 schools amid declining enrollment

The board revised the plan after the school communities voiced concerns.

Karl-Anthony Towns

X-rays negative after Karl-Anthony Towns takes scary fall

Towns crashed hard to the ground late in the game Wednesday night.

Minneapolis police

2 more homicides push Minneapolis closer to record set in 1995

The deadly shootings happened on the city's North Side Wednesday night.

Karl-Anthony Towns

KAT sets a franchise record, leaves early in loss to Wizards

Towns fell on his back in the final minutes of a loss in Washington.

Flickr - police lights squad siren - Edward Kimmel

Man shot by police in Forest Lake dies from injuries

It was one of two police shootings in the Twin Cities on the same day, both of which proved fatal.

Dylan Bundy

Report: Twins agree to deal with Dylan Bundy

The Twins signed the right-hander with a lockout imminent.

Flickr - face masks covid pole - Ivan Radic

'Everyone should really be masking up' in public, Malcolm says

The health commissioner said residents have gotten "a little bit lax" with some protective measures.

Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton believes he's the best player in baseball

"Nobody [does] the things that I do. I know that."

unsplash medical marijuana

Edibles coming to Minnesota's medical marijuana program

MDH also announced it will not add anxiety as qualifying condition.

plow, snowplow, snow

Plowable snow possible this weekend in Minnesota

Up to half a foot of snow could fall within the heaviest band.


Update: Delta's systems are back to normal, but some flights today still canceled

There was some technical issue that had Delta travelers stuck waiting Sunday night.

Delta flight returns to MSP after engine problems

The Delta Air Lines plane was headed to Orlando when an indicator light came on shortly after takeoff. WCCO reports the pilot shut down the engine and safely returned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday night.

Scan your fingerprint to get on your Delta flight

Delta is doing a test run at one airport, and hopes to expand in the future.

Carry-on case starts 'smoking' as Delta flight from MSP lands in Wisconsin

Fire crews in Appleton, Wisconsin were scrambled to the plane.

Update: YouTuber kicked off Delta flight responds, says this wasn't just some prank

Delta says the YouTuber, Adam Saleh, was shouting on the plane.