Air Capital residents came out in droves on a cold and windy Thursday to honk their horns and cheer as a plane took off.
But not just any old plane.
They were there at Jabara Airport, near 37th and North Webb Road, to watch as a wayward Dreamlifter managed to take off at about 1:15 p.m. on a short runway after mistakenly landing there Wednesday night.
The massive cargo plane landed about nine minutes later and nine miles to the south at McConnell Air Force Base – where it was suppose to have been in the first place.
Travis Clark, a former sailor aboard the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, was among those who waited and watched as the modified Boeing 747 left Jabara.
“I thought it was amazing that a plane that big could get up enough speed and take off on a short runway,” he said.
Wichitans braved near-freezing temperatures much of the morning to see the massive cargo plane that had missed McConnell Air Force Base on Wednesday night and incorrectly landed nine miles to the north at Jabara.
Some sat in warm cars, such as Clark, in parking lots across the street. Others slowly drove past the plane, rolling down their windows to take pictures.
For a while, about 30 people braved the weather to line the fence along the south runway, about 100 yards from where the plane was. One of those was John Cintron, who was dressed in an orange Chicago Bears sweatshirt and shorts.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of seeing this plane take off,” he said. “I’m confident they can do it.”
The plane’s load was lightened considerably so that it would be able to take off from a short runway.
The Dreamlifter landed at about 9:40 p.m. Wednesday at Jabara. It landed safely, and there was no damage to the plane, Boeing said.
The giant air transport was supposed to land at McConnell, and taxi over to the adjacent Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems.
The Dreamlifter typically flies to Wichita to pick up forward fuselages for assembly of Boeing 787 Dreamliners in Seattle or South Carolina.
“The tower was in contact with the pilot,” McConnell spokesman Stefan Bocchino said. “They were the ones who told him where he landed. From what I understand, the guy just landed and had no clue where he was landing.”
Radio traffic between McConnell’s tower and the pilot indicated as much. Moments after the tower cleared the Dreamlifter to land, the air traffic controller told the pilot: “McConnell is nine miles south of you.”
Pilot: Yes, sir, we just landed at the other airport.”
Pilot: “Apparently, uh, we, uh have landed at (Beech Factory Airport, which is between McConnell and Jabara, just north of Kellogg and west of Webb Road).”
McConnell: “Verify. You are on the ground at Beech airport?”
Pilot: “We think so.”
McConnell: “. . .You are at Beech?”
McConnell: “Are you able to make an approach, correction, a departure off the airport and back in the air and to McConnell.”
Pilot: “We are working on those details, sir.”
It was soon sorted out that the plane was at Jabara.
Jabara’s runway length is 6,101 feet – almost half the length of McConnell’s runway. There were heavy skid marks at the end of the runway where the Dreamlifter stopped at Jabara, which is near 37th Street North and Webb Road.
Boeing contracts with New York-based Atlas Air for pilots to fly the Dreamlifter. Atlas is bringing in two pilots from New York to the Air Capital to fly the plane from Jabara to McConnell.
Atlas spokeswoman Bonnie Rodney did not immediately return a call for comment.
Dreamlifter was expected to take off about noon. But that was delayed for about an hour, said a city official.
The flight crew had arrived, but needed to do their preflight checks before takeoff, said Victor White, director of airports.
Crews took fuel off the airplane to lighten its load, sources say, and with the light cargo load and current wind conditions, the plane is capable of taking off.
“They’ve just got enough fuel to make it to McConnell,” said Paul Spranger with Midwest Corporate Aircraft, the fixed base operation at Jabara.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said the Dreamlifter was bound from New York for McConnell, which shares its runway with Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems. Boeing has a permit to use McConnell’s runway.
The plane had come from Italy with 787 parts on board, said Boeing spokesman Doug Alter.
Last week, planes had brought in 787 center fuselages and tooling for storage at Boeing Wichita. It’s unclear whether the plane flew in with similar cargo.
The plane that landed at Jabara is one of four modified 747s that Boeing uses to ferry parts for the new Dreamliner’s construction.
The plane has a wing span of 211.5 feet and is more than 235 feet long.
Atlas Air has operated the Dreamlifters since 2010, taking over the contract from Evergreen International.
Under the agreement with Atlas, Boeing retains ownership of the Dreamlifters and pays fuel costs for the 787 transportation trips.
It’s not unusual for pilots who aren’t familiar with Wichita to mistake Jabara for McConnell, said Steve Stowe, a former chief pilot and manager of flight operations at Boeing in Wichita. Stowe is now a senior engineering test pilot for Bombardier Flight Test Center in Wichita.
“It’s happened before in reduced visibility where a pilot on approach to McConnell mistook Jabara but figured it out pretty quickly,” Stowe said.
The way the runways are aligned and with low visibility, “you can mistake Jabara for McConnell if your’re not familar with area,” he said.
When he was at Boeing, “we mentioned this issue to visiting pilots in our Local Area Briefing Guide,” Stowe said.
The runways at McConnell and Jabara are in close alignment and nearly parallel.
That could cause a pilot to see Jabara before McConnell, he said.
Beech’s runway is also parallel but further to the west, Stowe noted.
The Dreamlifter pilot landed the wayward plane coming in from the north to the south.
The National Transportation Safety Board is gathering information on the incident, a NTSB spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Jabara is closed.
“We’re on stand down,” said Shellie Foster, customer service supervisor Midwest Corporate Aviation.
Thursday morning, Foster was seeking permission from the Wichita Airport Authority to allow small planes to take off from Jabara.
Despite the Dreamlifter at one end of the runway, “we have plenty of runway for some of our smaller aircraft,” Foster said.
Airport property was not damaged, said Brad Christopher of the airport authority early Thursday morning at Jabara. “Everything looks fine,” he said.
After the Dreamlifter takes off, however, the authority is bringing in engineers to examine for possible damage.
Meanwhile, a long line of cars and sightseers filled Webb see the plane. Some people were pulling into the airport to take photos.
R.J. Martin, who used to fly and helped build Denver International Airport, was at Jabara early Thursday morning taking photos.
“It’s interesting. That’s a big jet. That’s a small runway,” he said.
“It’s a good thing we don’t have tall buildings. The vertical lift is not that fast on that plane.”
Lisa Stewart stopped by after taking her husband to work.
“I’m just here to check out the plane and see how big it is,” she said. “It’s bigger than an airplane. It’s just so amazing.”
One passerby who stopped for photos said, “Who makes a mistake like that? I understand mistakes. (This one) is so public.”
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