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Southwest pilots grounded after airport mix-up



DALLAS (AP) -- The pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight that mistakenly landed at the wrong Missouri airport were grounded Monday, less than a day after they touched down at a small airfield that gave them only half as much room as normal to stop the jet.

After passengers were let off the plane Sunday evening, they noticed the airliner had come dangerously close to the end of the runway, where it could have tumbled down a steep embankment if it had left the pavement.

"As soon as we touched down, the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said passenger Scott Schieffer, a Dallas attorney who was among the 124 passengers aboard Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago's Midway Airport to the Branson airport. "I was wearing a seatbelt, but I was lurched forward because of the heavy pressure of the brake. You could smell burnt rubber, a very distinct smell of burnt rubber as we were stopping."

Branson Airport has a runway that is more than 7,100 feet long - a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County Airport is only slightly more than 3,700 feet because it is designed for small private planes.

After the jet stopped, a flight attendant welcomed passengers to Branson, Schieffer said. Then, after a few moments, "the pilot came on and said, `Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to tell you we landed at the wrong airport.'"

Southwest spokesman Brandy King said grounding the pilots involved is common while the airline and federal aviation officials investigate the mistake.

The captain is in his 15th year flying for Southwest, King said.

At first, Schieffer said, he considered the mistake only an inconvenience. But once he got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, which he estimated as about 100 feet away.

"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger and instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy," he said.

Mark Parent, manager of the smaller airport also known as M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, described the distance as closer to 300 feet. He said the runway is built partly on landfill. At the end there is a "significant drop-off," with a ravine beneath it, then busy U.S. 65 on the other side.

He said a Boeing 737 had never landed at the small airfield, which opened in 1970 and normally handles light jets, turboprops and small aircraft for the charter, corporate and tourism markets.

No one was around at the airport when the Southwest flight landed. Airport staffers had gone home about an hour earlier but were called back after the unexpected arrival, Parent said.

Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Dallas-based Southwest, said everyone aboard the jet was safe. He did not know why the plane went to the wrong airport.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency was investigating, but he declined to elaborate.

Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, said the Southwest pilot was in communication with the airport tower, which cleared him to land around 6 p.m. The plane touched down a few moments later at the other airport.

Skies were clear at the time, with the temperature in the 50s, Bourk said.

Passengers were loaded on buses for the 7-mile trip to Branson. Southwest brought in another plane for passengers flying on to Love Fiend in Dallas. That flight departed around 10 p.m., Bourke said.

Hawkins said the aircraft involved in the mistaken landing should be able to take off from the smaller runway, though it was not clear when that would occur.

The minimum runway length needed to take off varies depending on a plane's weight, the temperature and other factors. Based on Boeing documents, a lightly loaded 737-700 can take off from a runway about the length of the M. Graham Clark airport.

Parent said he had no doubts that the plane would be able to take off safely.

Instances of commercial jets landing at the wrong airport are unusual, but not unheard-of, according to pilots and aviation safety experts. Usually the pilots are flying "visually," that is, without the aid of the autopilot, in clear weather.

The instances also typically involve low-traffic airports situated close together with runways aligned to the same or similar compass points.

"It's unlikely that you would have this problem between JFK and LaGuardia or Newark and LaGuardia," said former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia, referring to three New York-area airports. "They are too busy. The airplanes are under total air traffic control until they come down to about 500 feet."

Wrong-airport landings have been happening about twice a year for the past several years, Goglia said. Safety experts believe there are many more instances of planes that almost land at the wrong airport, but the pilot realizes the mistake and aborts the landing in time.

In the Missouri case, a key question for investigators will be why the second Southwest pilot, who was not flying the plane, did not catch the error in time to prevent the mistaken landing. Typically, the pilot not flying the plane is supposed to be closely monitoring navigation aids and other aircraft systems.

Sunday's event was the second time in less than two months that a large jet has landed at the wrong airport.

In November, a freight-carrying Boeing 747 that was supposed to deliver parts to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., landed 9 miles north at Col. James Jabara Airport. The company that operated the flight later said in a training video that the crew was skeptical about the plane's automation after the co-pilot's flight display had intermittent trouble, and the pilot chose to fly visually when he spotted the brightly lit runway at Jabara.

Last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., landed without incident at the small Peter O. Knight Airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area, and base officials introduced an updated landing procedure.


Join the discussion

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Barbara Hammons Davi January 13 2014 at 9:04 PM

Thank God no one was hurt. He must be one hell of a pilot though to land a jet on that airstrip.

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2 replies
hattie54 Barbara Hammons Davi January 13 2014 at 9:13 PM

See if he keeps his job?

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1 reply
Hey Girl! hattie54 January 13 2014 at 9:29 PM

He will. People make mistakes, no one was hurt.

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Brian Workman Barbara Hammons Davi January 13 2014 at 9:32 PM

At least he wasn't having to land on the Hudson River.

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artwolters5 January 13 2014 at 8:11 PM

In your report the phrase: "Usually the pilots are flying "visually," that is, without the aid of the autopilot, in clear weather" is non-sequitur. As a pilot, I could fly "visually" (meaning, by looking out the windshield for guidance -- rather than following ILS gauges). Whether visual or not, I could fly with autopilot, or fly manually. The first option (visual or not) determines the path of the plane; the second (autopilot or not) defines whether the pilot has mechanical help in following that path.

In any case, it is the responsibility of the pilot to get to the right landing spot (not the tower controller!). When tower says "cleared to land," he means the landing runway and the surrounding airspace is clear.

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2 replies
Jim artwolters5 January 13 2014 at 8:21 PM

The confusion is probably because they were thinking too much about "flying on to Love Fiend in Dallas". Did you catch that part? And, yes, it actually took two guys to do this story too.

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krausee artwolters5 January 13 2014 at 8:35 PM

the ILS, part of it.. Localizer, actually contributes to this. Of course, having douche bag pilots is the main factor.

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rojoripper January 13 2014 at 8:05 PM

Kudos to the pilot for making a safe landing...the problem now is how to get that plane to safely take off from a runway of only 3,700 feet in length--especially with a cliff(?) at one end of it!! I sure hope they wait for a strong headwind from the cliff end of that runway before making the attempt. Years ago, when I had only a few hours logged in the left seat, I was flying to an unfamiliar airport and got the vectors mixed up and lined myself up on the approach to the wrong airport...which just so happened to be a military base! The tower from my destination airport discovered the error and saved my ass from who knows what if I had touched down, which echoes a previous remark...where was approach during all of this confusion? Lots of unanswered questions...and somebody's ass is not going to be saved! Chalk another off to human error...

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2 replies
ggblank1603 rojoripper January 13 2014 at 8:09 PM

Will rotate easy with no load

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Jim rojoripper January 13 2014 at 8:14 PM

Lightly loaded, 3700 feet, no problem. Where they originally departed (Chicago Midway) the LONGEST runway is only 6200 feet.

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1 reply
krausee Jim January 13 2014 at 8:44 PM

2500 feet difference ever hear about ground abort?

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ralphwburke January 13 2014 at 8:04 PM

One pilot might make a careless mistake; but the co-pilot absolutely should have caught it. And ATC should have seen the aircraft decending to wrong airport; that's 3 errors. Inexcusible for 3 professionals, even if "cleared for the visual" landing, in this pilot's opinion.

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2 replies
krausee ralphwburke January 13 2014 at 8:45 PM

You know nothing about ATC or piloting.

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broot32053 ralphwburke January 13 2014 at 9:21 PM

good observation

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robyn January 13 2014 at 7:54 PM

i think we should hold off on condeming these pilots until we get the entire story. the pilot landed this plane some place no other pilot has ever done before which tells me he is a great pilot and something must have happened. where is the tower in all of this. they had to see this plane was not where the pilots had said it was. i want to hear what the black box says. could be there was some malfuction of their equipment and these men saved lives. dont be so quick to judge on a story that is only half written.

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1 reply
krausee robyn January 13 2014 at 8:48 PM

you know nothing about the tower.. they don't monitor/control **** like this. Robyn, you 're a moron

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amado23 January 13 2014 at 7:50 PM

All Runways look the same at night so once they saw the lights they fixated and aimed for that runway. He slammed the brakes because once you land you have rwy remaining markers (BIG BLACK SIGN WITH A SINGLE WHITE #) that tell you how much rwy you have left when he saw 2, he slammed brakes. So that part took a heavy portion of two pilots on brakes full reverse thrust.

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maldan77 January 13 2014 at 7:42 PM

can you say drug test and not just the pilot,the whole crew

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wadisplace January 13 2014 at 7:41 PM

I waiting to be on an airline that says,"We are sorry, but we have landed in the Bahamas accidently instead of New York City. We won't be leaving for a week, and you can enjoy the Hotels, Resturants, and tours at the airlines expense."

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2 replies
ADAM ANTMAN wadisplace January 13 2014 at 8:02 PM

Reminds me of the 1961 TWILIGHT ZONE episode where the plane attempts to land at Idlewild. The plane is in 1961 but the airport is in 1939. Not only do they fly over Flushing Meadows, NY and catch site of the 1939 WORLD'S FAIR but also see dinosaurs roaming.

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Max Lilly wadisplace January 13 2014 at 8:26 PM

Oh Man you are alright, I'm with you. Hell yes, navigate to the Bahamas

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stev511673 January 13 2014 at 7:41 PM

The FAA has stoppped even having control towers that are open in some smaller venues. The ones that are open don' t all have radar equipped towers. A lot of the flying is VFR (visual flight reference) I don't know if the tower had this plane on radar. Hope more cuts to FAA don't cause this to happen more.

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4 replies
Marvin Lashever January 13 2014 at 7:40 PM

I have landed at Clark many times, great Airport, short runway, great job Southwest pilot.

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1 reply
ron Marvin Lashever January 13 2014 at 8:22 PM

I agree. Great job of keeping your navigational error from being a fatal catastrophe for probably many people. Ever heard of GPS? There's probably two of em in the panel but you have to look at them and act on what you see. They work well in VFR conditions.

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