Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Air Force blames pilot fatigue for C-17 landing 4 miles from MacDill

The Air Force C-17 sits at Peter O. Knight Airport after missing MacDill by about 4 miles on July 20. Gen. James Mattis was aboard.


The Air Force C-17 sits at Peter O. Knight Airport after missing MacDill by about 4 miles on July 20. Gen. James Mattis was aboard.

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 or (813) 226-3382.

Air Force blames pilot fatigue for C-17 landing 4 miles from MacDill 01/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 11:47pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Jordan Spieth wins British Open


    SOUTHPORT, England — Someday, perhaps soon, there will be a plaque at Royal Birkdale for Jordan Spieth, much like the one off the 16th hole that celebrates Arnold Palmer and the 6-iron he slashed out of the rough in 1961 to usher in a new era of golf.

    Jordan Spieth, left, stands on a mound to look at his ball on the 13th hole after hitting onto the driving range.
  2. Fennelly: Brutal weekend could be start of something worse for Rays

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Well, that was lovely.

    Brad Boxberger suffers his second loss in the three-game series, this time by allowing back-to-back homers in the eighth inning when called on to protect a 5-3 lead. “Just bad pitches,” he says.
  3. Wesley Chapel hockey camp impresses youth players, parents

    Lightning Strikes

    WESLEY CHAPEL — As a 17-year-old Triple-A hockey player, MacCallum Brown regularly plays against elite talent. As a Palm Harbor resident, he often has to travel to face that talent.

  4. Rays claim not to be panicking after third straight brutal loss to Rangers

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — There was no "here we go again" moment in the dugout as Rougned Odor's two-run homer in the eighth inning arced across Tropicana Field and toward the rightfield seats, even though when it landed, the score was tied and another late-inning Rays lead was blown.

    Rays third baseman Evan Longoria heads back to the dugout after fouling out in the ninth inning with the potential tying run on first.
  5. White House signals acceptance of Russia sanctions bill


    WASHINGTON — The White House indicated Sunday that President Donald Trump would accept new legislation imposing sanctions on Russia and curtailing his authority to lift them on his own, a striking turnaround after a broad revolt in Congress by lawmakers of both parties who distrusted his friendly approach to …

    President Donald Trump’s ability to lift sanctions against Russia would be blocked.