TAMPA — The behemoth C-17 cargo plane that landed in error at a tiny Davis Islands airport carried within its fuselage one of the military's mightiest men.
But Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, holds no ill will toward the crew that screeched to a halt on a short runway with him aboard.
"The young pilot did a good job landing, albeit on the wrong strip," Mattis said Wednesday.
Six months after the mishap shook up a residential district that flanks the Peter O. Knight Airport near downtown Tampa, the military has finally put the blame on human error, a theory espoused by civilians long ago.
The aircraft, as wide as a football field and as tall as a five-story building, was headed to MacDill on July 20.
When it instead set down at the small field on the southern tip of Davis Islands, residents could feel the vibrations and hear the roar.
Deric Dymerski, president of the company that runs ground operations at Peter O. Knight, realized right away that the pilot must have mistaken one airport for the other. It had happened before. After all, both airfields have runways oriented at the same angle.
Retired pilots immediately suspected pilot fatigue.
Civilians had their theories but the Air Mobility Command, based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, initially confirmed none of them, not even that the incident was a mistake.
Journalists from the Tampa Bay Times and other news outlets filed Freedom of Information Act requests, hoping that one day an investigation might produce an explanation. Finally, it happened. A reporter for the Tampa Tribune got one of the first copies and published a story Wednesday.
The account said the Air Force attributed the error to "fatigue, complacency and a lack of flight discipline." The pilot had lost sleep over a phone left in a taxi. The flight from Italy took 12 hours. Midair refueling sapped crew energy.
As the C-17 approached Tampa, the pilot mistook a smaller airfield for MacDill, according to the account. The co-pilot and a crew member corrected him: It was Peter O. Knight, they said.
But it was actually Tampa Executive Airport, well northeast of downtown. So when the real Peter O. Knight rolled into view, they were expecting it to be MacDill.
The rest of the story was apparent from the ground. The C-17 touched down, scattering the startled airport crew.
The civilian runway is 3,405 feet long, less than a third the size of the runway 4 miles southwest at MacDill.
About halfway down the runway, the pilot hit the brakes in earnest. The big-footed landing gear left triple streaks of rubber.
"There were actually two sets; one from the landing, and one from when they backed it up," said airport executive Dymerski.
Videocameras caught it all.
Even now, the C-17 incident draws views and comments on You Tube. One video has been seen more than 270,000 times.
"The raw video on our phones is always a hit in a crowd," Dymerski said. "Sometimes you'll hear someone trying to describe what happened and you pull out your phone and say, 'You mean this? Shot it myself.' "
No one was hurt. The landing strip was unharmed. The Air Force reimbursed Peter O. Knight for about $1,000 in expenses, incurred while the airport was closed to other traffic, Dymerski said.
"Looking back, since there were no injuries or any damage, it has become simply another part of the interesting history of our airport," he said.
As for Marine Gen. Mattis, he said he hasn't seen the report produced by the Air Force.
Responding by email to the Times, he used the expression "much ado about nothing."
He said he put in a good word for the pilot, whose name has not been made public. Mattis noted that he had made his own "colossal mistakes" in earlier years.
"Some young guys made a human error," he wrote, "and hopefully they'll recover and enjoy long and illustrious careers."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.