ST. PAUL, Minn. – Robert Morrell wondered what was up after his Northwest Airlines flight touched down.
Nobody from the flight crew got on the intercom to welcome passengers to Rapid City. He looked out the window and saw barracks-like structures and military officials. And then the crew told passengers to pull down their window shades.
Turns out it wasn’t Rapid City Regional Airport. It was Ellsworth Air Force Base.
After about five minutes, a voice from the cockpit broke the news to passengers.
”He (the pilot) hemmed and he hawed and he said, ‘We have landed at an Air Force base a few miles from the Rapid City airport and now we are going to figure out how we’re going to get from here to there,”’ Morrell told the St. Paul Pioneer Press on his cell phone during the delay Saturday.
The delay stretched past three hours as the 117 passengers waited in the nearly full Airbus A-319.
During that time, military officials questioned the crew. Eventually, the captain and first officer were replaced by a different Northwest crew, which made the short hop to the right airport, three hours and 42 minutes late.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a
spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told AP Radio on Sunday that the agency is investigating.
”Our investigators will be talking to the pilots, also the control at Northwest, also air traffic control over the next several days to weeks, to find out what happened and why,” Cory said. The FAA will also be working with the military, she said.
Northwest released little information about the incident, confirming only that the crew made an ”unscheduled landing” at the military base at 12:15 p.m. Mountain Time.
”The situation is under review and we have nothing further to add,” said Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch. ”We’re not acknowledging it was pilot error.”
Ebenhoch would not release the names of the pilots, nor would he specify how long they’d been flying on Saturday, give their experience level, say whether they’d ever landed at Rapid City, or whether the pilots were suspended.
Morrell, a physician from Raleigh, N.C., offered the consensus of the passengers:
”Everyone is surmising it was pilot error. The presumption is that the pilot just landed at the wrong . . . airport.”
Ellsworth controls all airplanes in airspace 40 miles around the base and clears flights to land at both the Rapid City airport and the base. Ellsworth confirmed with Rapid City airport officials that the Northwest plane was authorized in the airspace.
”He was looking toward an airfield, saw one and thought it was the other,” said base spokeswoman Lt. Christine Millette. ”As far as we knew, they were on track, and then they weren’t.”
Asked where the regional airport runway was in relation to the air base runway, Millette said, ”Just over the hill.”
Millette said the airliner was making its approach when the crew briefly spotted what they thought was Rapid City’s airstrip. Then the plane went into the clouds, Millette said.
”So as they were coming out of the clouds, they were just about to land and they realized they were at the wrong airstrip,” she said. ”They said (to air controllers), ‘Hey, we are landing’ and within seconds they were on our airstrip.”
Civilian airplanes occasionally make emergency landings at Ellsworth, she said. The last time was in March when an American Airlines jet landed there with mechanical difficulties.