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Southwest Airlines pilots confused by wrong airport's lights



WASHINGTON (AP) - Southwest Airlines pilots who recently landed at the wrong airport in Missouri have told investigators they were confused by the small airport's runway lights, believing it to be a larger airport in nearby Branson, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

The pilots of Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago's Midway Airport said in interviews with investigators that they had programmed the Boeing 737 flight management system for the Branson airport, NTSB said. But as they were approaching to land at night last Sunday, they first saw the airport beacon and bright runway lights of Graham Clark Downtown Airport, located in Hollister, Mo., and mistakenly identified it as the Branson airport, which is 7 miles away.

The captain had not previously landed in Branson, and the first officer had previously landed there once, and that was during the daytime, NTSB said in an update on the incident. They didn't realize until the plane touched down that they were at the wrong airport, the NTSB said.

During the landing approach, the pilots contacted the Branson control tower. They were told by controllers they were 15 miles from their target. But the pilots responded that they had the airfield in sight. Controllers then cleared the plane for a visual approach to land on Branson runway 14. That means the pilots were relying on what they could see rather than automation to orient the plane.

Instead, the midsized airliner with 124 passengers on board landed on the Downtown Airport runway, which is half as long as the Branson runway. The runways are oriented in a similar direction. Passengers later described the plane coming to an extremely hard stop just short of a ravine at the end of the runway, and the smell of burnt rubber.

NTSB said the pilots "confirmed that they utilized heavy braking to bring the aircraft to a stop."

Besides the pilots, NTSB said investigators also interviewed a Southwest dispatcher, who was on the flight, riding in the jump seat, and listened to the cockpit voice recorder. Investigators have also begun to analyze the plane's flight data recorder, which contains about 27 hours of recorded data from the jet's computer systems.

The captain has been with Southwest since 1999 and has about 16,000 flight hours, including about 6,700 hours as a captain on the 737. The first officer has been with Southwest since 2001 and has about 25,000 flight hours.

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 a visual approach in clear weather.

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

The incident in Missouri is the second time in 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 nine 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.

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Colorwizard January 19 2014 at 8:14 AM

I fly Southwest very frequently. I totally have the greatest respect for the pilots that take use from point A to point B everyday. I want to commend these pilots for safely bringing these passengers in and not having a terrible situation or outcome. Next point, now that we recognize a flaw in the process, let's fix it. To often we realize something is wrong and do nothing to change the experience. Now is the time to create a new procedure, maybe major airports must have specific lighting for approach and landing? Whatever it maybe, thank you pilots and aviation industry for strict per and post fly procedures that keep thousands safe everyday.

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martyhihook January 19 2014 at 7:29 AM

the air traffic cont. should have info as to who is landing at their airpt. and when eg. flight 007etc you are not sched. for a landing at this airpt (give name)at this time do you have an emerg.? no oh oops wrong airpt.could it be that simple?

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rock.george.rock January 19 2014 at 5:43 AM

First of all, the first thing a pilot must watch on plane's instruments panel as lined up to runway for landing it is check runway centerline on the compass. They landed on runway 12 threshold at Graham Clark Airport, which centerline is 117°, and they should land on runway 14 threshold (centerline 143°) at Branson Airport. That mistake always has been made for many pilots because of cancelation IFR flight rules changing them to VFR flight rules (visual approach instead instruments approach). The time for this kind of mistake has been made it is crucial around sunset or sunrise. Instruments sight transition from the inside cockpit to outside visual sight at dusk it is not so natural. Pilots are looking for runway threshold lights (green or red), and in the case some green lights came in sight and he/she had abandoned the navigation plane's instruments to pay his/her attention only to outside looking for the runway, It's obvious that mistake could be made, as they made it. The second point, pilots shouldn't DECLARE to Approach ATC they have caught a sight of the runway in an intention to proceed in visual condition (mainly at night) to land at airport they have no familiarity to it (as they declare this situation, the air traffic controller understands the crew do not need ATC services anymore). Air Traffic Controller's responsibility ceases immediately after the pilot has declared he/she will proceed in visual condition. It has the same effect to ask for IFR flight rules cancelation.

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1 reply to rock.george.rock's comment
| January 19 2014 at 10:32 AM

insidous sence 1904 naval flight s test inand feilds elect. ty. &$ stamana consentrated

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norhowca January 19 2014 at 5:27 AM

Among other things, this lead-in article goes on to report that; ..."Besides the pilots, NTSB said investigators also interviewed a Southwest dispatcher, who was on the flight, riding in the jump seat." Here again, the officials (and reporters) are skating around the identity of the person who was occupying the jump seat. So now they tease us by telling us the person was a dispatcher. On the other hand they have identified the pilots by their title and statements, and even went so far as releasing some details regarding their technical experience. But other than the title of dispatcher, we are still spinning in a whirlpool of mystery concerning a few other particulars regarding the
"dispatcher" who "allegedly" was sitting in the jump seat (between the two pilots) during the always critical decent vector and landing of that aircraft.

Moreover; considering the firm rules and strict guidelines expressed by the Airline Industry regarding the occupancy of jump seats, that are also strongly suggested by the NTSB, and firmly imposed by FAA regulations, ...all out of concern for possible distraction to the pilots during critical flight operations, ...I therefore have to wonder (and mind you I do so with all humility), I have to wonder if such does not beg the question of the identity, as well as at least a few other pertinent details concerning the individual who was invited, or otherwise authorized to occupy the jump seat of that aircraft during such critical flight operations.

Indeed; the very act of the officials (and reporters) to skate around this issue from the very beginning, in my opinion lays reasonable cause to suspect there is "more to this than meets the eye!" ...and I'm not talking about instruments, runway lights, control towers or the existence in any configuration whatsoever of technological automaticity, ...or the lack thereof!

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mastermark3698 January 19 2014 at 4:55 AM

every one keeps telling me flying is safer thin driving. I will stay on the ground, thank you.

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tonymaner January 19 2014 at 3:48 AM

Give these pilots some credit they took a bad situation and kept control, brought it down safe and did their job. THESE PILOTS HAVE A STELLER RECORD, GIVE THEM A BREAK.

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1 reply to tonymaner's comment
| January 19 2014 at 9:39 AM

my congraded for gotten that rabid confusetusion slamed hard, rat jarbal,the piltot main/trac/ enemys of one

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johedspe5 January 19 2014 at 3:34 AM

Some of the previous remarks, you know they were not from pilots. Being an old civilian pilot ,
been there done that. At night regardless of the instruments you visulally sight the runway lights
I also remember an incident of a 707 land down the river at a small air which was about 10 miles
from the Portland International . Runways had about the same heading. That was over 50 years
ago. I wonder how many times this has happend just in the states over the last 50 years.

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1 reply to johedspe5's comment
foubabou January 19 2014 at 4:17 AM

I've made my living flying for a long time. Over 38 years. Twice in my career I've headed towards a smaller airport a few miles from the intended destination. Both times VFR, single pilot and both times in a helicopter to an airport w/o an operating tower.

Once at about 3 AM as I descended below radar coverage in a rural area back in '84 I was given a position (12 o'clock and 10 miles) and headed towards a brightly lit runway that was about 5 miles from the actual destination and runways oriented the same. On about a 1 mile final I realized the mistake and went to the correct destination.

It can happen, does happen and most of the time the error is correccted before landing.

What the pilots did right is when they realized they were at the wrong airport is they were more concerned about the safety of the aircraft and passengers instead of attempting a last minute go around to try and save their egos.

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Mark January 19 2014 at 2:37 AM

i read this (and of course I've been following it) a few hours ago and I had to read it again.. just now.. "pilots confused by wrong airport lights"... it was amazing when I'd first heard that "a plane had landed at the wrong airport, but noone had been hurt, there was no crash".. to know when we find out "why"... the biggest question still has to be... HOW?? What on ear was going through the pilot's mind (or both their minds) in the minutes leading up to the landing.... a plane...... full.......of.........people....... that's the important question that we've all forgotten.

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Valerie January 19 2014 at 3:20 AM

Really, dude? Nobody was hurt. People in EVERY profession make mistakes EVERY day. These guys had more than 40,000 combined flying hours between them. Their explanation seems reasonable. I'm sure they were drug tested. Then there was the employee in the jump seat who could confirm nothing was amiss. Do you not ever make a mistake in your job? Chill out.

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Cathy January 19 2014 at 2:23 AM

Thank God no one was hurt and maybe they should look at finding the answer to the airport problem, depend less on computers instead of crucifying the pilots.

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buds32a January 19 2014 at 2:21 AM

No air traffic control on-site... {government cutting budget for air traffic control facility staff} Small air ports use remote air traffic control. Nobody in the Branson tower!!! Or the smaller airport tower that they landed at. Springfield Mo, airport is the closest air traffic controller ,,,, some 40 miles away. Looking out the window at there location did not help the pilot.

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