Yesterday, the Web was abuzz with rumors about a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 that had mistakenly landed on a taxiway at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). Word of this incident generated a lot of chatter on Twitter and aviation message boards, although the details were sketchy at first. By late afternoon we all learned that the aircraft, which was arriving after a scheduled flight from Rio de Janeiro, had declared a medical emergency shortly before landing; that it had been cleared to land on ATL's Runway 27R; and that it had actually touched down on ATL's Taxiway Mike. Fortunately no one was injured.
The gist of all the conversation about this incident has centered on the question, "How could this happen?"
Apparently the U.S. National Safety Board (NTSB) intends to learn the answer to that question. A short time ago the NTSB announced in a press release that they would investigate the incident. Here is what the press release said:
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the landing of a Delta B-767 on an active taxiway at Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport (ATL).This instance was not the first time a commercial aircraft mistakenly landed on (or took off from) a taxiway instead of a runway. It was this crew's good fortune that the taxiway was not occupied at the time they landed, so there was no collision, however the consequences could have been catastrophic.
According to preliminary information received from several sources, on Monday, October 19, 2009, at 6:05 a.m. EDT, a Boeing B767-332ER (N185DN) operating as Delta Air Lines flight 60 from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta landed on taxiway M at ATL after being cleared to land on runway 27R. No injuries to any of the 182 passengers or 11 crewmembers were reported.
A check airman was on the flight deck along with the captain and first officer. During cruise flight, the check airman became ill and was relocated to the cabin for the remainder of the flight. A medical emergency was declared and the company was notified by the crew. A determination was made to land at the scheduled destination of ATL.
The flight was cleared to land on runway 27R but instead landed on taxiway M, which is situated immediately to the north and parallel to runway 27R. The runway lights for 27R were illuminated; the localizer and approach lights for 27R were not turned on. Taxiway M was active but was clear of aircraft and ground vehicles at the time the aircraft landed. The wind was calm with 10 miles visibility.
Night/dark conditions prevailed; twilight conditions began at about 7:20 a.m. EDT and the official sunrise was at 7:46 a.m. EDT.
A team of four from the NTSB, led by David Helson, is investigating the incident.
I know there's a lot of speculation going on about this incident, not just within the aviation community, but among travelers as well. It's important for future safety to understand how this incident happened, of course, but everyone should remember that it's not possible to second-guess what happened on that flight deck. Now that the NTSB is involved, I think we can be reasonably confident that they will get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, I hope everyone refrains from the 'blame game' while the investigation is underway. Let's remember that the purpose of such an investigation is to understand the process that led to the error, not to name culprits.