Planning for SNAFUS

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The Air Force spent a lot of time and money a generation ago when it designed its C-17 cargo airplane to take off and land at short, unimproved runways around the world – “austere” was the word of choice. But it couldn’t imagine that capability would be needed because a pilot would someday err and land at the tiny Davis Islands airport near Tampa, Fla., instead of the huge MacDill Air Force Base nearby.

The Air Force has remained mum on the embarrassing July 20 mishap, saying it remains under investigation. “They weren’t on our frequency,” Deric Dymerski, who runs the company that manages ground operations at the smaller airport, told the Tampa Bay Times. “They just showed up.”

And it was a tight fit: MacDill has an 11,500-foot runway, compared to the island airport’s 3,500-foot airstrip about five miles away.

“How in the hell did he stop?” an eyewitness wondered as the 200-ton behemoth shuddered to a halt. “They’ll never be able to get that out of there,” another bystander says.

Actually, thanks to good old American engineering, getting the C-17 off the Davis Islands airport was as easy as landing it there. Here’s why.