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C-17's landing at wrong airport elicits theories but few facts

An Air Force C-17 Globemaster III sits at Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands after an unscheduled landing. It was later flown to its original destination: MacDill Air Force Base.
Published Jul. 24, 2012

TAMPA — Life's trajectory is imperfect. Some days you get the neighbor's mail by mistake. Some days a baseball falls in your yard. Some days, it's a military cargo plane, misplaced on a tiny Davis Islands airport, right beside the dog beach.

The neighbor's phone rings. The kid knocks. The Air Force shows up in a caravan to reclaim what is lost and promptly launches an investigation to learn the details of how this happened.

How, that is, a behemoth C-17 cargo plane landed at the wrong airfield.

The Air Force isn't yet calling Friday's incident an accident, but that hasn't kept anyone from jumping to conclusions. After all, who among us hasn't nodded off at the $200 million wheel? Who will cast the first Chinook?

"I'm quite sure the crew was embarrassed," said Deric Dymerski, president of Atlas Aviation, the company that runs ground operations at Peter O. Knight Airport.

"They weren't on our frequency. They just showed up.

"They obviously, well, I'm speculating, mistook it — all appearances are they mistook the airport for MacDill Air Force Base."

The aircraft, as wide as a football field and as tall as a five-story building, was headed to the base after supporting Central Command operations in southwest Asia, according to the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

Approaches into the Tampa Bay area are initially monitored by controllers based at Tampa International Airport, but at the time of the landing, the flight had already been handed off to MacDill's tower, authorities said.

Maj. James Bressendorff, AMC public affairs executive officer, said Monday that, as frustrating as it might be to people, he can't provide details about the mission or landing because the flight is still under investigation.

He said it's unclear how long the investigation will take or whether findings will be made public.

"During certain types of investigations, there are certain things taken into account that are not apparent," he said. "Whatever we can release we will release."

In the absence of facts, people are trading conspiracy theories, fueled in part by YouTube videos now viewed by more than 50,000 people.

Theory No. 1: The landing was all about testing C-17 capabilities for the upcoming Republican National Convention.

"That's a new one," Bressendorff responded.

"To the best of my knowledge, it was a routine mission."

Theory No. 2: President Obama.

After the cargo plane landed, workers in the airport lobby heard a woman screaming that she had seen him at the top of the stairs.

"She was on her cellphone telling friends," said Dymerski, the airport official.

"At first she said she saw him come to the windows. It doesn't have any windows. Obama would have to be a pilot."

Bressendorff gamely fielded the Obama theory.

"Stand by," he quipped. "Let me see if I can check my passenger list. No, I don't have the passenger list. What I can say is that it was a routine flight for the most part." He chuckled softly. "It started out routine. And the POTUS was not being transported. Let's dispel that rumor."

It is, of course, easy for people who spend their lives on the ground to titter over the concept of a pilot mistaking a 3,405-foot runway for one more than three times that size, 4 miles away at MacDill.

John Cox, 58, of St. Petersburg has flown airplanes for 42 years. He was an airline captain by age 29, and he helped investigate the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427.

Like others, he suspects the Peter O. Knight landing was probably pilot error.

But he also sees the need for a thorough investigation, so that others might learn from any mistakes made.

"I suspect we are going to see fatigue may have played a fairly significant part of this," he said. "They had come quite a distance."

Bressendorff wouldn't say how long the flight had been, just that it originated in southwest Asia.

"That's halfway around the world," Cox said.

A tired pilot might have just seen what he expected to see.

The C-17 landed on a Davis Islands runway that lines up perfectly with the longer runway at MacDill.

"Have you ever been driving down I-275 or I-75 and you realize you've just driven by the exit you intended to take, and you realized, 'I'm just fatigued?' '' Cox asked. "I suspect on a grander scale we may be seeing something along that line."

Cox figures an investigation will turn up what safeguards were in place and why they didn't work.

He noticed that of the 42 people onboard, 19 were crew.

He gives the crew credit for the safe landing.

"Recognize what they did and did well," he said. "Once they realized they needed to land precisely, stop, do things necessary to keep a full-blown accident from happening, they did."

That said, when the C-17 hopped over the bay to its rightful field, there was a new crew at the controls. One that isn't the target of an Air Force investigation.

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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