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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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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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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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g77patten January 19 2014 at 1:39 AM

Okay, the pilots screwed up...but what was ATC doing as the plane descended below 200 AGL? I've practiced instrument approaches off of Long Beach, CA. (a VOR approach) were if you descend too low, the tower hollers at you wondering why you're descending below minimums. The real story of this incident was...What were the folks in the Branson tower smoking when all this was going on?

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Josh Giles g77patten January 19 2014 at 2:26 AM

Controllers only have binocular's in the tower. 15 miles is a long way to see with binoculars. Especially when you're not expecting the aircraft to land at an airport half the size with a single runway 20 degrees off the intended airport.

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g77patten Josh Giles January 19 2014 at 3:44 AM

That's only if Branson is a VFR field only. If they're set up for IFR with instrument approach runways, the tower will be equipped with transponer monitoring equipment that will show the attitude of an approaching aircraft. What business does commercial traffic have using a VFR field only? What happens on a cloudy & foggy day?

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rareexpfini January 19 2014 at 2:00 AM

someone that has landed at that airfield more then once would of realized there was a close airpor with the same running headings
but if they had flown by and trusted their instruments they would of ended up at the right airport . all the instruments weren't down

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Josh Giles rareexpfini January 19 2014 at 2:15 AM

PLK and BBG don't have the same runway configuration. They're 20 degrees off from Branson. Not to mention almost half as small.

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foubabou Josh Giles January 19 2014 at 4:27 AM

20 degrees difference would hardly be identifiable from the air at night.

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gotb January 19 2014 at 1:16 AM

The Branson tower cleared them to land on runway 14 and they should have checked heir heading when they lined up on approach as they landed on runway 12 at the wrong airport. The 20 degree difference should have been questioned by both pilots before landing.

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1 reply
brothermac1 gotb January 19 2014 at 5:29 PM

That's a fact!

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dan61653 January 19 2014 at 1:16 AM

After the controllers strike of 1981, many of the smaller controlled airports were no longer controlled by ATC. Once an aircraft reports the airport in sight, the aircraft is cleaded for a visual approach and frequentcy is approved,so they can switch to a unicom frequentcy..This is probably why they landed at the wrong airport............

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1 reply
Josh Giles dan61653 January 19 2014 at 2:28 AM

Branson is a tower controlled airport that lies within Springfield approach. It's a pretty new airport.

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jaerr1 January 19 2014 at 12:19 AM

The first officer has 25,000 hours....and he's still in the right seat???

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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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foubabou johedspe5 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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rareexpfini January 19 2014 at 1:54 AM

Some days i have driven ocean Parkway in fog you can only see 100yds in front of you and if it wasn't for my gps i wouldn't know where the important turns were .I'm surprised these planes don't have gps maps with their locations and headings on them and can see that they are heading for the wrong airfield .in ketucky once a plane took off on the wrong shorter runway and they didn't have time to abort

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Stan January 19 2014 at 12:02 AM

Takes me back to the days of Air America...those spooks "CIA" could take off and land anywhere... Simply put, they were the "Best" there was, and I would rather fly with them than anyone. Great Job Guys...Gear up !!

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