The Small Mistake Heard ‘Round the World


“White markings, it’s a runway, Chewie.”

A few people have asked me about Harrison Ford landing down at John Wayne airport. They said from the news it was hard to tell what had happened. Among pilot friends I have mostly said, “I sure am glad that none of my tiny mistakes are broadcast around the globe. It would make me so nervous every time I got in the plane.”

And, in general, nervous pilots make more mistakes.

I was recently taking off from Santa Monica to fly down to Long Beach. I had my instructor with me. We briefed the flight very carefully. We were being incredibly thorough because we were flying the plane down for maintenance.

There are two departures off of Santa Monica where I tune in a VOR navigation radio. The first is the standard instrument departure where I dial in the LAX VOR frequency (113.6), set the radial for 315, and as I am climbing up over the beach and reach that radial off of the transmitter at Los Angeles International Airport, I turn right to a heading of 250.

The second departure is when I fly through the mini-route (or the related VFR Special Flight Rules corridor), and I dial in the Santa Monica VOR (110.8), set the radial to 128 and follow that over the LAX airspace as I fly south. When I am headed through the mini-route I make a right climbing 270, turning at the coast and climbing up over Santa Monica so that I pass over the Santa Monica VOR itself and head south at the correct 2,500 feet above sea level. This was the departure we were doing to get down to Long Beach.

When I dial in a VOR I confirm the identity. So I dialed in 113.6 and watched to make sure that it identified itself. (As a student pilot you learn to tune in the navigation aid and then bring the audio up in your headset. I would have heard .-.. .- -..- if I had done that, but one of the pieces of magic onboard in the G1000 is a computer that listens to the morse code for you and translates it. So the three letter identifier pops up right next to the frequency as soon as it has transmitted its dots and dashes on the little loop.)

We took off. It was the most exciting take off since my check ride take offs. I had enough adrenaline in my bloodstream for a whole week. I am reading a book on extreme fear, so I am very aware of how the fear reactions make it more difficult for our rational processes to function. Over 1,200 feet, halfway to our assigned altitude and in a very smooth turn to the south, my heart rate started to slow a little bit from “jackhammer.”

There is a period over a VOR where you cannot pickup the signal at all. The transmitters are all pointed at the horizon, since these are distance navigation aids. The area over the VOR’s set of transmitters is called “The Cone of Confusion,” which always makes me think of Get Smart. We crossed over the VOR and I had us lined up on a 128 heading. I watched the CDI waiting for “needles” to come alive. (Really, the needles on the LCD display are a segmented line where the middle segment of three needs to swing into place.) Nothing.

I should point out that I didn’t have the slightest worry over this. I have a GPS route that will bring me from my home field to the home field of my mechanic. That was loaded in; it had drawn pink lines on my moving map. I have flown this route almost a hundred times, including once during training with my primary instructor. But I didn’t know why I was missing my additional assistance for the navigation over LAX. I pointed it out to my CFII and she glanced around and said, “You put in the LAX VOR instead of SMO.” One button tap and I was monitoring the correct source and we had our little bit of confirmation that I was on the legal route through the Class B airspace. (I keep SMO tuned in on the second navigation radio on takeoff, it is a habit.)

That was it. In a flight that lasted less than twenty minutes, it was the single mistake made. It was made even though there were two people on board who were, out loud, working very hard to fly a flawless flight. I often tell people that if you make a three foot mistake in a car you could make a fatal mistake, but you can make a hundred foot error in a plane and no one even notices.

Unless you are a famous actor. If I were, they could have written the headline that “Colin Summers flew over one of the world’s busiest airports with thousands of passengers at risk below him, without tuning in the legally required navigation source to get him safely through the restricted airspace. Additionally, he had not filed a flight plan, was arriving at the Long Beach airport unannounced, and was flying the plane even though it had recently had maintenance issues.”


Some Canadian’s Aviat Husky

Harrison was flying a tiny plane. It weighs less than half of what our plane does. More importantly, people have landed it a hundred feet, while it takes at least 1,200 feet to get ours to a stop. The larger runway at John Wayne airport is 150 feet wide so, yes, Han Solo could land going across the runway. (“Such a short runway, but look how wide it is.”) When you are in a plane that tiny, a large airport like KSNA is a sea of concrete and everywhere looks like a place to land.

That’s no excuse for making a mistake. Mistakes don’t need excuses, they are mistakes. People, even pilots, make mistakes. When I made one at Indianapolis the tower controller spotted it, even though it was at night, and suggested I try again. I haven’t listened to the tape, but I heard that he was cleared to land on runway 3 and, due to magnetic drift, the runways at John Wayne Airport have recently been renumbered to runway 2 (and runway 20). So maybe the controller made a mistake as well.

Oh no, what will happen?

The FAA will look into it, via the local safety office, or FSDO. They will decide that Mr. Ford needs to demonstrate his proficiency as a pilot, just as they did with my friend Art. Unlike Art, Ford is fantastic pilot, probably at the top of his game, or near it. He flies a helicopter, two different taildraggers, a business jet, a turboprop and a few planes that friends let him fly. The WW2 trainer which he landed on the golf course has a notoriously unreliable engine and, perhaps predictably, it crapped out on Ford. I would guess that he is one of the five best pilots on the field at Santa Monica, and I don’t know that any of them would have survived the engine failure. It was a great bit of flying (which Ford doesn’t remember because of the anesthetics he was given).

Since he can dead stick land a plane with the gliding characteristics of a vending machine, I’m pretty sure he’ll pass a 709 ride. They will ask a few questions about airport markings, which are standardized across the country. One of the important ones: runways have white markings, taxiways have yellow markings. (I have landed at a few places where the glare was so bad I could identify that I was lined up for a chunk of pavement, but not what color the markings were.)

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.