June 21, 2004


Passengers Told Not To Peek When Flight Lands At Air Force Base (AP, 6/20/04)

Robert Morrell wondered what was up after his Northwest Airlines flight touched down.

Nobody from the flight crew got on the intercom to welcome passengers to Rapid City, S.D. He looked out the window and saw barracks-like structures and military officials. And then the crew told passengers to pull down their window shades.

Turns out it wasn't Rapid City Regional Airport. It was Ellsworth Air Force Base.

Hands up, everyone who thinks it was a security lapse not to blow this plane out of the sky.

Posted by David Cohen at June 21, 2004 11:07 AM

If the pilot's name was Corrigan, I don't want to know about it.

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 21, 2004 11:43 AM

Several years ago, a Delta flight bound for Louisville landed in Lexington (this was at night).

And flights for Phoenix have landed at an abandoned AF base to the southwest, although those are weather-related, as I understand.

But who wouldn't have looked? For all the passengers knew, they were at Area 51.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 21, 2004 12:10 PM

Maybe it was that alternate universe with those concentration camps in the Dakotas filled with neocons and anti-abortion fundamentalists...

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 21, 2004 12:12 PM

Reminds me of the time I gained clearance to land at one N. Jersey airport before landing at another. Afterwards I learned that mine was far from the first "wrong turn" in those skies.

Posted by: curt at June 21, 2004 1:53 PM

Bet that landing closes the log books of two pilots.

Posted by: John Resnick at June 21, 2004 2:23 PM

Maybe, maybe not.

Like any mishap, this one involves a chain of circumstances. For instance, somebody cleared that airplane to land. For another, I'll bet the airplane is a DC-9, and both Ellsworth and the destination airport do not have a navaid on the field compatible with the DC-9 (the DC-9 uses VOR, Ellsworth TACAN; Rapid City probably only has a localizer). Additionally, the runways probably weren't very far apart, and have the same bearing.

I have flown into places like this--including this very airport--and despite all the vigilance in the world knowing it's only a couple bad breaks away from a wrong airport landing.

BTW--Ellsworth wouldn't have anything available to shoot with which to shoot an airplane down.

And no, I will neither confirm nor deny which airline I am from which I am on furlough, or how I know so much about DC-9s, or that it was very likely a Diesel-9.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 21, 2004 8:23 PM

Many years ago a TWA Boeing 720 flight scheduled into CHM one night (10,000 ft runway) landed at the Ohio State U airport (4,000 ft runway). The Pilot was busted to baggage handler. They had to take all of the seats out of the plane and put a very minimal load of fuel in it to get it back into the air.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 22, 2004 12:16 AM

Jeff: Are you saying that, almost 3 years after 9/11, no provisions have been made to protect even our military bases from 9/11 style attacks?

The Democrats must be appalled.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 22, 2004 7:32 AM

It's likely that once the plane reached a certain
proximity with the base, it was going to have
to land for security reasons anyway. A mystery
flyover would have probably been more of a problem.

Posted by: J.H. at June 22, 2004 9:09 AM


I am precisely saying that. CONUS bases do not have any fixed air defenses. And unless Ellsworth is a fighter base (at one time they had B-1s, they might have Air Guard F-16s now, but I don't know), there wouldn't be any air defense assets at all. That said, the logistics involved in the defense against internal attacks would be prohibitive.


Doubtful--absent a couple airfields within the Nellis complex, military control towers work pretty much the same as their civilian counterparts.

My guess is that the tower at the destination airport cleared the airplane to land without ascertaining the airliners position because they had no reason to do otherwise. Meanwhile, Ellsworth had no traffic in the area, and no one noticed the airliner until it was on short final, if then.

Posted by: at June 22, 2004 12:08 PM

Jeff: They can't stick a SAM in a locked closet and give the key to the Duty Officer?

Posted by: David Cohen at June 22, 2004 1:43 PM


Uh, no. Well, actually, they could. But fat lot of good it would do.

A SAM small enough to fit in a closet isn't big enough to cover the airfield--a Stinger has an effective range of about 3 miles. From the center of a base, that gets you to the perimeter fence. If you put them at the fence, then you need a lot more than one--never mind response time.

Also, a SAM small enough to put in a closet isn't big enough to bring down an airliner. Airliners are built to withstand an uncontained engine failure, which is the most a small SAM could hope to accomplish. That's not to say a small SAM couldn't bring an airliner down, but it would definitely be a low PK (probability of kill) shot.

And, given the heat signature of fanjets, might not be worth a darn in a head-on engagement, anyway.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 22, 2004 7:56 PM

Clearly, we need a crash development program.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 22, 2004 9:11 PM


Actually, I think crashes are as developed as they need be.

Posted by: at June 23, 2004 11:59 AM