(translated by Juergen Matthes)
Everyone thinks, flying in bad weather is more difficult or more dangerous than flying in good weather. But you cannot generalize this, flying in good weather can be damn dangerous too!
Tower Düsseldorf, good weather, sunshine, very light winds, no cloud in the sky. A perfect day. In such a weather, visibility unlimited, the planes come in visual and only monitor the instrument approach aids, like the ILS, occasionally. The magic words are: “we have the field in sight.” They get their landing clearance and everything is alright.
Not so with a Clipper (Pan Am) this very day.
Approach reports the Boeing 707 at 10 miles final. This means, the Clipper will be sent to our tower frequency. He calls in right a way and reports “… field in sight”. He gets his landing clearance. Only problem: After 2 minutes, no Clipper is visible anywhere!
He should have been at the outer marker by now, but – nothing. We called the Clipper and asked to confirm his position. His brief answer: “…landing!”
But that couldn’t be. Nothing on the runway. Ulli remarked: “Essen, he must have landed in Essen, oh shit!”
Ulli was right, as we found out by a quick call to Essen Tower. They got the big jet just barely stopped at the end of their runway! And what a surprise, the runway supported him, he didn’t sink in! One has to know, the runway at Essen is limited to a weight of 5.7 tons, but a 707 weighs about 100 tons, amazing!
How could an experienced pilot mistake Düsseldorf with Essen, that had never happened before. Essen lies about 3 miles north of the runway centerline of Düsseldorf, but the runway direction is almost identical to ours. The Clipper pilot was vectored by approach about 15 miles out onto final approach track performing a left turn. Doing this the pilot sees the Essen runway, although a few miles north, first. He doesn’t check his instruments and thinks, this has got to be my runway, reports the field in sight and adjusts his approach further north and a bit shorter. And he reports field in sight on our tower frequency.
We, on our tower, had no chance to notice this error, because Essen is about 6 miles northeast and the Clipper was already quite low, so no visual contact could be achieved. What is this normally called: A chain of unthinkable mishaps!
The colleagues at Essen left the 707 sitting at the end of the runway. They weren’t sure whether the taxiways would withstand the weight. The passengers could get off the plane after one hour. That was how long it took to haul some stairways from Düsseldorf to Essen!
One thing was clear, the chance to get such a heavy bird out of Essen again in one piece was very low. The landing had been already a miracle, but takeoff on such a short runway, impossible. That meant, Essen airport was going to be closed, for a long time.
We had to report this incident and to enter it into the daily log. The report went to Brunswick, Luftfahrtbundesamt, the responsible unit which investigates such incidents. We were also faced with interviews, we were involved. If things went wrong, they could convict us of malpractice. There such a dummy lands at Essen and we will prosecuted for this, the outlook was not very inspiring! Our fears became true after two hours, when the watch-supervisor of the radar control-room was at the door together with 2 policemen and watched us until we were relieved. Then all evidence, the control-strips of the Clipper and other things, were confiscated and we were questioned in the reclining room, highly official.
Some days later, the investigators from Brunswick were there, the whole case was reconstructed. An HS 748, a two-engine prop the German ATC used to calibrate navigational aids, acted like the Clipper. Approach now guided this plane exactly like they had guided that Clipper, according to the radar data. The investigators payed close attention, if we could have avoided this incident.
We thought this was quite unfair. They had all the time in the world and they knew what they had to pay attention for. So far never a plane had landed in Essen, that something like that is possible, we agreed, we could not have had a chance to expect. Therefore we also couldn’t have avoided it! The time which passed between landing clearance and the upcoming question “where is he” seemed long enough to complete the landing at Essen. You just don’t imagine that this could happen.
After the manoever had been executed 3 times and the plane was not visible at all, not even for the investigators, the guys decided to replay the recordings from the tower timed exactly to the progress of the plane during another run. Aha, they really were up to try to find something with us! We were supposed to have acted too late.
But this also didn’t work, it seemed we were safe. We did everything right, thank goodness! Pilots error.
Meanwhile the technicians agonized “how do we get that bird back out of Essen?” And this in such a way that you can use that plane again afterwards. This is a question of money, such a bird is not inexpensive! Question: What is a good landing? A landing you walk away from. What is a perfect landing: A landing you can use the plane afterwards!
After two weeks the decision was made. First they wanted to unmount the wings, then load the plane on a flatbed and haul it to Düsseldorf, then remount the whole thing again. But then they dropped that idea, 1 – too expensive, 2 – the plane would have to undergo a massive re-licensing marathon to get its airworthiness certificate back!
So they decided to strip the plane. Everything which was not essential for a short flight was removed and hauled to Düsseldorf, except the pilots seats (and instruments and engines, of course). Then the plane should hop (fly) to Düsseldorf where everything was to be put in again.
The technicians had calculated a max takeoff weight for the runway length in Essen. The task was to reach that weight! But no one was sure whether the whole thing would finally work, after all! Very comforting! We were able to follow the progress on this thing because all the removed parts were hauled to hangar #8.
Then the day came, takeoff should take place.
Our team on the tower had to close the airport at 14:00 for two hours. Two test-pilots of Boeing should takeoff at 14:15 and try the hop to Düsseldorf. Everything worked out, the calculations were correct, the Clipper appeared on the horizon and landed safely at Düsseldorf.
It took another 2 weeks until the plane was reassembled and disappeared without passengers, headed for New York.
Not always bad weather is a problem, there can be problems also during good weather periods!