After a long night flight from Asia, the passengers and crew of a Pan American flight disembarked to find themselves at the wrong airport. As is often the case with such erroneous landings, the flight landed a stone’s throw from its intended destination. Let’s take a look at how this bizarre event happened.

Background

On October 25, 1960, a Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) Boeing 707 was flying from Tokyo to New York via London Heathrow. With 42 passengers on board, the flight was on the penultimate leg of a multi-sector flight with intermediate stops in Hong Kong and Frankfurt. The plane’s intended destination that day was London Heathrow Airport, located west of London.

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At the time, Heathrow had a pair of east-west facing runways (27/09, which remain in use to this day) but also had a “crossover” runway 23/05 at the eastern end of the airfield which dissected the two main tracks. This piece of tarmac is no longer used for take-off or landing, being part of Heathrow’s network of taxiways in the 1980s.

Just ten kilometers (six miles) from Heathrow is RAF Northolt, an active Royal Air Force base which also now hosts a small number of VIP and business aviation movements. Northolt predates the establishment of the Royal Air Force by nearly three years, having opened in May 1915, giving it the longest history of continuous use of any RAF airfield.


During the construction of Heathrow Airport in the 1950s, Northolt was used for commercial flights, becoming for a time Europe’s busiest airport and a major operating base for British European Airways , a British Airways training carrier.

In recent times the airfield has become the hub of British military flying operations for the London area, with the RAF and civilian operations supporting the British Government and British Royal Family often using the airport. The single track at Northolt (26/08) runs northeast to southwest, just 30 degrees from the orientation of the old cross track at Heathrow.

The proximity of the two West London airports is obvious. Photo: via Google Earth

In the 1960s, when this incident happened, there were no instrument landing systems (ILS) at airports and global positioning systems had not yet been invented. Therefore, most flights were still performed using visual references. In the case of Heathrow, pilots were often cleared to perform visual approaches to land once they had declared to air traffic control (ATC) that they had the “field in sight”.

Conveniently located below the two long final approach courses direct to the respective runways of the two airfields were two very large and very similar “gasometers” (huge tanks storing natural gas for domestic residential use). Pilots regularly used one as a visual cue on their final approach to Heathrow, but that also led to problems, as in this particular case.

Flight history

On the day of this unusual event in October 1960, the Pan Am Boeing 707-321 (registration N725PA) began its final approach to Heathrow after the crew said they had spotted what they believed to be the Heathrow runway 23 slightly to its right. . Without the benefit of the ILS, the crew continued their approach.

The Boeing 707 was performing a radar sequenced approach to Heathrow in good visibility conditions for a landing. Eleven miles from the airport, the captain of the Pan Am flight reported to the radar director at Heathrow that he had the runway in sight and was then cleared for a visual approach.


Approaching the airfield, the crew lowered the landing gear and flaps, slowing the aircraft and putting it into the proper landing configuration. The crew, continuing to believe it was Heathrow Runway 23 directly ahead of them, began to descend and were then cleared to land by ATC.

The aircraft touched down and the crew reported that they had to brake “fairly hard” to stop within the available runway length. However, they had not landed on Heathrow Runway 23 at all but touched down at the start of Runway 26 at Northolt. The plane came to a stop with only 30 meters (100 ft) of runway left in front of them.

There was some consternation in Heathrow’s control tower when the plane did not actually appear on their runway. Initially, controllers believed the Pan Am flight must have crashed, although there were no visual clues surrounding the airport confirming this.

Around the same time, Heathrow tower controllers received a phone call from RAF Northolt asking what a Pan Am 707 was doing on their runway. At a time when Northolt was only used by active RAF squadrons and did not accommodate civilian traffic, security was generally tight and a Boeing 707 landing unexpectedly was not an everyday occurrence.

Aircraft removal

After several more phone calls, the passengers were discharged at Northolt. They were taken by bus on the ten-mile journey down the road to Heathrow, where friends and family awaited their rather late arrival.

However, as the runway at Northolt was only 1,677 meters (5,500 ft) long, there was no way a Boeing 707 could take off from the runway to reposition itself at Heathrow. Eventually the decision was to send a team of Pan Am maintenance personnel from Heathrow to Northolt to remove everything they could from the 707 to minimize its weight.

Once it was as light as possible, the airline calculated that it would be able to take off with the takeoff distance available at Northolt for a short ferry flight to Heathrow.

The maintenance team removed the seats, carpets and as much cabin equipment as possible, along with most of the fuel that remained in the wings. The tanks were left with just enough fuel to cover the ferry flight to Heathrow plus a small amount of reserve.

The next morning it was reported at the time that the same crew that had landed at Northolt had been instructed by Pan Am to fly the plane to Heathrow, with the captain joking with local reporters that his managers had told him that as “he had put it there, it had to be taken out.”

As a precaution, the main A40 road, which runs along the bottom of the eastern end of the Northolt runway, was closed to traffic until the Boeing 707 took off. However, much lighter without much of its interior, the plane took off quickly from the runway at Northolt and landed successfully at Heathrow a few minutes later.

According to aviation folklore, once safely on the ground at Heathrow, the captain was later fired by Pan Am. However, this has never been officially confirmed by any source.

Subsequent investigation

At the time, there was little time or funds available to conduct a full investigation into the incident involving the Pan Am flight. In a parliamentary hearing two months after the incident, the Ministry of Aviation said reported that the pilot had apparently misidentified his aerodrome and had therefore landed at Northolt. The case was then closed.

That was until April 1964, when a very similar event nearly happened again. This time, a Lufthansa Boeing 707 found itself on final approach to Northolt, its crew believing it was about to land at Heathrow.

This time, Heathrow ATC controllers, who were monitoring the flight on radar, alerted the crew to their mistake. At the same time, Northolt controllers managed to dissuade the Lufthansa crew from landing at their airfield by lighting a red signal flare.

But even the Lufthansa incident was not to be the last. A few days later, a Spanish Air Force C-54 heading for Northolt nearly landed at RAF Hendon, about ten kilometers west of Northolt and just ten kilometers north of Heathrow.

Following these two subsequent incidents, a thorough investigation was opened. During the investigation, pilots familiar with Heathrow said that having the two gasholders of very similar proportions approaching the two airports was confusing. Each of the incidents involved crews misidentifying the two gasometers, causing them to steer to the wrong nearby runway.

Ideas put forward as a result of the inquiry were to paint the gasometers in different colors or to paint warning signs on the threshold of runway 26 at Northolt. At this time Northolt did not have an ILS system, and the Ministry of Defense refused to install such a system due to the cost relative to the number of movements at Northolt.

Eventually, it was decided to paint letters on top of each of the gasometers. The initials ‘NH’ were painted on the Harrow Gasometer located on the final approach to Northolt (later changed to ‘NO’), and ‘LH’ was painted on the Southall Gasometer below the final approach to Runway 23 at Heathrow. The latter has also been repainted in light blue for further identification.

However, after some time it was considered that the two could still be easily confused at a glance from the cockpit of an aircraft, and eventually the Harrow ‘NH/NO’ gasometer was demolished. The Southall Gasometer was eventually demolished in 2019 to make way for new accommodation.

It is not officially known what happened to the Pan Am captain who landed at Northolt (Captain Warren Beall) or his flying career after the event. But it was reported at the time that he told local reporters covering the story that the landing at Northolt was simply “an honest mistake.”

A not so rare event

Although rare, the incidents in this story are not entirely unheard of. Even today, with the most modern navigation equipment on board passenger aircraft and ATC radar and tracking systems far superior to those available in the 1960s, errors involving mistaken identity and landings in bad airports still happen.

At Simple Flying, we often cover stories involving planes landing at the wrong airport or passengers taking the wrong flight. You can find a full list of these stories here.

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