Wrong-airport pilots confused by lights

WASHINGTON — 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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