By Alice Mannette
WICHITA, Kansas (Reuters) - A Boeing cargo jet that was stranded overnight at a Kansas airport too small to handle the giant aircraft took off safely Thursday and landed a short time later at what had been its intended destination, officials said.
The Dreamlifter bound for McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, had inadvertently landed instead at the nearby Colonel James Jabara Airport run by the city, according to a statement by Boeing Co spokesman Doug Alder.
The bizarre spectacle made national headlines and drew gawkers to the smaller airport on Thursday, prompting traffic jams, car crashes, and road closures around the area.
The plane took off about 1:15 p.m. CST (2:15 p.m. EST) and landed at McConnell 20 minutes later. Airport officials and spectators applauded and sighed with relief when the massive plane's wheels left the airfield about 16 hours after the erroneous landing.
City officials said the 235-foot (72 meter) Atlas Air 747 Dreamlifter landed at Jabara late Wednesday by mistake, but did not say what led to the error.
The two pilots had taken off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, officials said.
"Whoa," Wichita city officials said in a statement posted early Thursday on the city's official Facebook page. "The plane is too large for the runway and will need help departing."
Boeing contracts with Atlas Air to fly the plane and was looking into how the incident happened, Alder said.
The airport is equipped to handle small business planes but nothing as heavy as the Dreamlifter, which can carry about 800,000 pounds on takeoff. No cargo had to be removed from the plane for it to take off, Alder said.
The airport and plane escaped damage.
"I think it's hysterical. I couldn't stop laughing," said Kevin Schwerdtfeger, 33, a commercial pilot from Appleton, Wisconsin, who was in town for training and stopped by the airfield to watch the take-off. "I've heard of this before, but it's fairly rare."
Another pilot expressed sympathy for the crew and said he thought the whole situation was "kind of sad."
"I'm sorry for the pilots that landed there by mistake because their careers are in jeopardy," Steve McNulty, 65, said.
The 600-acre (243 hectare) Jabara Airport, which has one runway, one helipad and no control tower, is about nine miles from McConnell.
The 6,100-foot runway is about 3,000 feet short of what planes of that size and weight typically use to become airborne, according to local media reports.
The Dreamlifter is a modified 747-400-passenger plane that can haul more cargo by volume than any other plane, according to Boeing's website. It is one of four specially enlarged 747s that are used to move pieces of the 787 Dreamliner to factories for assembly into new jets.
(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks and Alwyn Scott; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and Maureen Bavdek)