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

One South Dakota airport was mistaken for another.
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"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.

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