The C-17 Globemaster III was supposed to land at MacDill Air Force Base in July after a 10 1/2-hour flight from Rome. Instead, it landed at Peter O. Knight, a small airport on Davis Islands, and the pilot did not realize he was at the wrong field until after touching down on the runway.
Marine Gen. James Mattis told the Tampa Tribune in an email Wednesday it was a case of human error and he does not believe the crew should be severely disciplined.
"I've made a lot of mistakes in my time, and some were real doozies (worse than landing at the wrong airstrip)," Mattis wrote. "The Marine Corps kept their sense of humor throughout my checkered career and allowed me to move onward and upward."
Both airports have runways with the number 22 painted on to indicate the compass heading. At least one military pilot has mistakenly touched down at Peter O. Knight and two civilian pilots have landed at MacDill in recent years.
The Tribune, citing an Air Force report on the incident obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, said the flight's destination had been changed at least twice before takeoff from Rome, and the short notice required the crew to review the MacDill approach during the flight.
One source of confusion appears to have been that the crew saw Tampa Executive Airport, mistakenly thought that was Peter O. Knight, and believed the next airport thus had to be MacDill.
The report said MacDill has no procedures in place to deal with pilot confusion about the two airports and does not warn pilots unfamiliar with the area about Peter O. Knight.