You can walk away from it, but where to?
The famous pilot Chuck Yeager said: “If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.” Chuck, however, didn’t address what it was like if you land in the wrong place.
Mistaken landings still occur today but were much more common before the advent of GPS and modern navigational systems, especially during the often-confusing battles of World War II. One such mistake by a German pilot ended up giving the Allies a helping hand. On June 23, 1942, a squadron of Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters took off from Brittany in France to intercept six Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers and three escorting RAF squadrons.
At this time in the war, the Fw 190 had a strong technological advantage over British fighters, including the then-current version of the Spitfire, earning it the nickname the “Butcher Bird.” While the A-20s returned home safely, a dogfight between the Germans and the British escorts developed over the English Channel, with 2 German and 7 British losses. One German pilot, Lieutenant Armin Faber, got separated from his comrades and had to flee from his attacker. The pursuit took them north, over the South West Peninsula of Britain, where he finally turned the tables and shot down his enemy.
He intended to head south back across the Channel and to France but got confused and turned north instead. When he got to the Bristol Channel, he thought it was the English Channel. When he saw land on the other side, he thought it was France, while in fact it was Wales. He landed at the first airfield he saw, which turned out to be RAF Pembrey, where he was promptly captured by the duty pilot waving a flare gun at him. Pembrey was a training station and had no real weapons on site. Faber’s mistake was not only embarrassing but also handed the British an Fw 190 which they could study for its weaknesses.
Similar mistakes could also occur on carriers and one notable incident happened during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first engagement in history where carriers fought against carriers. During the battle, a flight of Japanese dive and torpedo bombers were launched from the carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku to intercept and attack an American cruiser group. The planes were detected by radar and intercepted by Grumman F4F Wildcats, which caused the Japanese to abandon their mission and head for home, jettisoning their ordnance on the way as was standard procedure. The pilots were exhausted from flying missions all day and rattled from the attack. With approaching, one small group of them, often cited as 2 or 3 planes, finally saw their carrier, entered the landing pattern and approached.
Only the carrier wasn’t a Japanese ship: it was the USS Yorktown. Though its superstructure is a different shape from the Shōkaku class, both classes had three deck elevators and the different paint scheme was easy to miss in the dark. At first, the deck crew didn’t notice anything off either, as some Wildcats were also in the process of landing and the newcomers were thought to belong to them. As they were getting close, a landing signal officer finally recognized the Japanese planes for what they were and instinctively waved them off, with the lead Japanese pilot following the cue and flying past the Yorktown.
At this moment, the Yorktown’s anti-aircraft crew woke up and opened fire on the intruders. In fact, many of them got so trigger-happy that lead started flying at several of the Wildcats still in the air. One U.S. pilot who was trying to land and suddenly found himself surrounded by flak bursts radioed down: “What are you shooting at me for? What have I done now?”It’s not quite certain what happened to the Japanese planes: nobody was awarded a kill for them, so it’s possible that some or all of them might have made a quick getaway amid the confusion.
A similar incident happened during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, again at night. This time, the U.S. carrier involved turned off its lights once the crew spotted the Japanese insignia on the errant plane. Not one to give up easily, the pilot or, perhaps, the pilot of another plane also tried to land on other American ships later that night.
Of course, not all mistaken carrier landings have dire consequences. American pilots have landed on the wrong carrier, but at least one belonging to the right side, with some frequency in World War II, the Korean, as well as the Vietnam War. Navy tradition dictates that the plane involved in such a landing be “creatively decorated” by the deck crew, much to the chagrin of the pilot and the original carrier’s crew, who’d have to give the aircraft a new paint job.