Wrong Way Pilots

Mistakes are a hazard of being human. Everyone occasionally make errors on the job.

However, most of us are fortunate that our goof-ups usually are not as noticeable as landing a plane at the wrong airport.

A Boeing 747 that was supposed to touch down at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., instead landed eight miles north, at Col. James Jabara Airport, a small municipal airfield. In exchanges with air traffic control after the misplaced landing, the pilot sounded confused and made some errors in stating directions.

Despite the mistake, the plane landed safely, with no injuries or property damage. NPR put together a tongue-in-cheek Google Maps route for the plane, in case it needed to taxi the distance from the airfield to the Air Force base; the “Dreamlifter,” designed to carry component parts for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner planes, usually needs a much longer runway for takeoff than was available at Col. James Jabara. The plane did, however, manage to take off successfully the next day once the cargo load was reduced.

This sort of mistake, while embarrassing, is not unprecedented. In 1979, a Western Airlines pilot mistakenly landed a passenger flight in Buffalo, Wyo., rather than at its intended destination in Sheridan, Wyo., about 35 miles to the north. The landing was a safe one, with no injuries or damage to the aircraft – just a lot of surprised passengers. The pilot, Lowell Ferguson, was suspended as a matter of routine. He appealed the suspension, but a court held that his actions qualified as reckless even though they were not deliberate. (He was later reinstated.) While Western Airlines was displeased with Ferguson, Buffalo was thrilled at the publicity. The town honored Ferguson as a guest at Buffalo’s centennial in 1981.

Perhaps the most famous case of a pilot heading the wrong direction is still that of Douglas Corrigan, who in 1938 flew from New York to Dublin despite having filed a flight plan from New York to Long Beach, Calif. Dubbed “Wrong Way” Corrigan by the media, the aviator maintained that he had simply lost his direction early in the flight. Given that he had initially sought permission to make the transatlantic flight – permission that aviation authorities denied – his explanation was not taken terribly seriously, though he never publicly admitted that he flew to Ireland on purpose.

Until now, I figured that in these days of GPS and computerized flight decks, mistakes like the Boeing pilot’s would go from rare to almost nonexistent, restricted perhaps to the folks who fly a dwindling number of “old-school,” mostly noncommercial, light aircraft and still rely on compass headings and radio beacons to find their way.

But no matter how much we automate, we still put human pilots in the cockpit, and humans will occasionally make mistakes. The trick in any endeavor is to try to ensure that the mistakes we make do as little harm as possible. We don’t want a pilot error to cause a crash. Airlines and their crews typically go above and beyond to ensure air travel or transport is as safe and routine as possible. Technological advances have certainly made that task easier.

On the other hand, if a pilot error safely puts a big plane in the wrong airport, or puts a small Wyoming town on the map, there’s no great harm. The kind of mistake where you get made a guest of honor afterwards is the kind of mistake we can afford to make every now and then.

About Larry M. Elkin 553 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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