A massive C-17 Globemaster III aircraft banked steeply over tiny Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands in Tampa; its pilot thought he was descending to land at MacDill Air Force Base where the longest runway is 11,421 feet.
The plane was in route to McDill from U.S. Central Command operations in southwest Asia with 23 passengers and a crew of 19. It touched down on Davis Islands about 1:20 p.m., Friday, authorities said.
It was clear to nearby residents that the giant military cargo plane was too big to safely land on the general aviation airport’s 3,405 feet runway, which is about a hundred feet less than the minimum required in the Globemaster’s operators manual. According to an Air Force fact sheet, the bulky plane has a wingspan of nearly 170 feet, according to a Tampa Bay Times report.
"It was so loud, it woke up my sister who was sleeping at the time," said Chelsea Alper, 23, a Stetson University College of Law student who was in a convenience store on E Davis Boulevard when she heard the roar of the engines.
The aircraft is 55 feet high, about twice as tall as a nearby hangar, and from certain angles it dwarfed two blue-and-white buses that pulled onto the runway.
In the 1980s, another confused pilot who mistook the tiny airport for nearby Tampa International Airport and landed a 727 loaded with passengers. That plane was disassembled and hauled away by trucks.
The Air Force had personnel on site within minutes to lighten the load of the 174-foot-long aircraft to prepare the tank-hauler for take off.
The aviation drama concluded at 8:27 p.m. as a gathering of spectators looked on. The lumbering C-17 Globemaster III cleared the runway with a few hundred feet to spare, flew low over Hillsborough Bay to MacDill where it landed minutes later.
As for the surprise landing at Peter O. Knight, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority spokeswoman Janet Zink said the plane landed "inadvertently" at Peter O. Knight Airport; witnesses claim the plane stopped a hundred feet short of the runway.
Through the years, runways of MacDill, Peter O. Knight and Tampa International Airport have occasionally been confused with one another, though unscheduled landings at MacDill have most often made the news.
One week in 2004, two planes mistakenly landed there, and in 1984, a commercial pilot mistook the Air Force base for Tampa International Airport and landed a jet loaded with passengers. But this week, the massive size of the aircraft and the diminutive size of the airport made for an exciting event during which no one was injured, save the pilot’s ego.
Marti Smith, 58, a nurse from Tampa, arrived to an impromptu tailgate party just in time for takeoff.
"When he started moving, I started praying out loud," she said. "It was quite a show."