Update: The plane took off from Peter O. Knight Airport about 8:30 p.m. Stay with TBO.com for updates.
Air Force officials are trying to figure out why an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet heading to MacDill Air Force Base instead landed at Peter O. Knight Airport this afternoon.
The plane, flown by a crew from the 305th Air Mobility Wing at McGuire Air Force Basee in New Jersey, was arriving from Southwest Asia carrying 23 passengers and 19 crew when it made an "unscheduled landing," according to Sgt David Carbajal, a McGuire spokesman. There appears to have been no damage to the aircraft or the airport, said Carbajal.
Air Force officials still do not know why the plane landed at the small civilian airfield on Davis Islands. The incident, said Carbajal, is under investigation.
The Air Force is planning to move the plane, said Carbajal, who did not immediately have details about how or when.
The flight was in support of U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill, Carbajal said.
Mistaken landings at nearby airfields are not unheard of across the country, but most occur at night by commercial or general aviation pilots. In 1980, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 727 bound for Tampa International Airport with 90 passengers landed safely in bad weather at MacDill.
The main runway at Peter O. Knight is 3,580 feet long and 100 feet wide, aligned in the same direction as MacDill's runway that is 11,421 feet long and 151 feet wide.
An unloaded C-17 is able to take off on an austere runway 90 feet wide and as short as 3,000 feet load, depending upon its fuel load and local temperatures, according to various Air Force and Government Accountability Office documents.
Ryan Gucwa, a pilot, was getting ready to get in his Piper Navajo and take off from the airport when he looked up and saw "this huge C-17 coming in over the top of the shipping port."
Seeing military airplanes over Peter O. Knight was not unusual, Gucwa said, but "this was only 100 feet off the ground and that is bizarre. Once the wheels touched the ground, I was terrified that there was no way to stop in time."
The nose landing gear of the cargo jet stopped about six to 10 feet from the end of the runway, said Gucwa, who took cell phone video of the landing.
The plane, he said, had markings from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Officials there would not immediately comment.
The landing surprised people who work in downtown Tampa office towers.
Frank Kilgore, a pricing manager for Hapag-Lloyd, an international shipping firm with office in the Suntrust Tower, said he heard someone in his office yell that the plane was on a final approach to the small municipal airport on Davis Islands.
"I knew immediately that it was not right," Kilgore said.
Commercial real estate broker Jason Donald was looking out his office window in a downtown skyscraper and saw the plane pass low over the fuel tanks in the Port of Tampa, then turn south towards Peter O. Knight.
"I face directly over the Bay and saw that plane come in so fast and thought to myself 'Never in a million years is he going to make it,'" Donald said. "I was waiting for flames."
There seemed to be a moment when the pilot realized the mistake, Donald said, but too late.
"He was carrying so much speed, I thought, 'This is not going to happen,'" he said. "If his front tire was not in the grass at the end of the runway, he was darn close."
It took about 17 seconds from the time the cargo jet's wheels touched down to time it came to a screeching halt near the end of the runway, according to video taken by Ryan Gucwa, who was at the scene.
The Peter O. Knight Airport is not equipped with a control tower. Aircraft rely on radio communications for landings there.
Federal Aviation Administration controllers at Tampa International Airport provide approach control to aircraft landing at MacDill and hand off aircraft to the MacDill tower when aircraft are about 10 miles out.
Peter O. Knight Airport is temporarily closed as the Air Force works to move the plane, Tampa International spokeswoman Janet Zink said. Neither the C-17 nor the airfield was damaged, airport and Air Force officials said.