Before its merger with United Airlines in 2010, Continental Airlines flew a scheduled passenger service between Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) using a Boeing 757-200 aircraft. The narrowbody 757-200 has a typical capacity of 200 passengers across two classes and a range of 3,900 miles (7,250 km).

Unfolding of events

On the eventful day, a then 12-year-old Boeing 757-224 (N17105) was carrying 148 passengers and six crew members from MCO for a late afternoon flight to EWR. The New York Approach Control had initially instructed the pilots of flight 1883 to perform an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach to runway 22L.

As the aircraft descended below 8,000 ft (2,440 m), the pilots were instructed to circle towards the west, followed by a low-altitude right turn to line up with runway 29 for landing. It was going to be the first time the co-pilot of flight 1883 had performed an approach on runway 29 at EWR.


Photo: John-Taggart-via-Flickr

The pilots followed the instructions, and upon taking the final right turn, they noticed that the Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) was located to the left of runway 29. That, in fact, was an incorrect determination as the pilots had mistakenly identified taxiway Z as runway 29 (located in parallel).

While continuing to approach, at approximately 300 ft (90 m), the aircraft flew through an intermittent rain cloud, resulting in a brief loss of visual contact with the “runway”. The aircraft landed safely on taxiway Z before the crew realized their mistake. The ground controller at EWR guided the aircraft to the gate without further incident. All passengers and crew were safely deplaned.

Incident investigation

Runway 29 at EWR is a 6,880 ft (2,100 m) asphalt runway with a width of 150 ft (46 m). The runway is equipped with high-intensity runway edge lights (HIRL), with light intensity levels ranging from 1 to 5 (brightest). At the time of the incident, the HIRL of runway 29 was set to level 1.

The parallel taxiway, taxiway Z, is a concrete surface with a width of 75 ft (23 m). The taxiway is equipped with green centerline lights (CL), also with light intensity levels ranging from 1 to 5 (brightest). At the time of the incident, the CL of taxiway Z was set to level 3.

An investigative flight around EWR airport, with similar conditions, revealed that the runway 29 centerline lights (white) and taxiway Z centerline lights (green) were completely lit and distinguishable at the time of the incident. However, the taxiway Z centerline lights appeared to be slightly brighter than the HIRL of runway 29.

Runway lights

Photo: Josbert Lonnee via Flickr

Due to low visibility, the light intensity of taxiway Z may have caused the pilots to mistakenly land at the taxiway. Moreover, from the pilots’ account, it was believed that the unexpected burst of rain eliminated a potential chance of correcting the error.

FAA’s recommendations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) advised upgrading the navigational guidance for both the north and south arrivals, while comprehensively using the available airspace over EWR. Additionally, a greater difference between runway and taxiway light intensities was implemented.

The HIRL on runway 29 was increased to level 3 intensity, and the CL on taxiway Z was reduced to level 2 intensity. The new settings allowed for better distinction between the runway and the taxiway, particularly in low-visibility conditions.

United 757 Alec Wilson via Flickr

Photo: Alec Wilson via Flickr

In the aftermath of the incident, lessons were learned, and changes were made. Meanwhile, the very Boeing 757-224 (N17105) remains in service with United Airlines.

What are your thoughts on the misidentification of the runway? Have you encountered similar incidents? Tell us in the comments section.


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