U.S. Probes How Southwest Jet Landed at Wrong Airport

Southwest Airlines Co. suspended the pilots of a plane that landed at the wrong airport in Missouri, the second such incident involving a U.S. commercial aircraft in two months.

The pilots were taken off flying duty pending the outcome of investigations by U.S. regulators and the carrier into the episode yesterday in Branson, Missouri, said Brandy King, a Southwest spokeswoman. Flight 4013 from Chicago carried 124 passengers and five crew members, the airline said.

The Boeing Co. 737 touched down at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Branson, which is seven miles (11 kilometers) from the main airfield served by Dallas-based Southwest and has a runway only about half as long. The flight was normal until the pilot aggressively slammed on the brakes to stop, said Scott Schieffer, a passenger.

“I was wearing my seatbelt and I was very glad I had it on,” Schieffer, a Dallas tax and estate planning attorney, said in an interview today. “We were lurched forward because of the force as the brakes were applied.”

The case echoed an errant nighttime landing Nov. 20 in Wichita, Kansas, when an Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. jumbo-jet freighter used a municipal airport instead of McConnell Air Force Base. Flight 4013 landed at 6:11 p.m. local time after a 4:54 p.m. departure from Chicago’s Midway airport, according to industry data tracker FlightAware.com. Sunset was about 5:18 p.m.

Narrow Focus

The pilots, finishing their flight after dark on a clear night, may have become so focused on the airport that they disregarded or didn’t check navigational aids that could have revealed their mistake, said John Nance, a former commercial and military pilot who is now a Seattle-based consultant.

“For the most part, in a modern jetliner, unless you have something really catastrophic that occurs on takeoff, your greatest likelihood for making a mistake is going to be on landing,” he said in an interview.

Crash-proof recorders that store flight data and pilot conversations were taken from the plane and sent to the National Transportation Safety Board’s Washington headquarters, according to an agency statement. The NTSB also plans to interview the crew. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration also is conducting an inquiry.

Flight 4013’s captain is a 14-year Southwest employee, while the first officer has been with the airline for 12 years, according to a statement on the carrier’s website.

‘Very Early’

“It’s very early in the investigation,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in a weekly recorded message to employees today. “We’ll want to understand very quickly what happened here.”

A Southwest employee was flying in a cockpit jump seat, said Brad Hawkins, an airline spokesman. Kelly said earlier that the plane had “an additional person” in the cockpit, without giving details.

Southwest fell 1.5 percent to $20.72 at the close in New York, paring its advance in the past year to 88 percent.

The plane used for Flight 4013 is being returned to service later today, Southwest said in a statement. It left Downtown airport at about 3 p.m. local time after an inspection, Southwest said.

The landing strip at the airport, also known as Taney County, is 3,738 feet long, compared with 7,140 feet at Branson Airport, according to aviation website AirNav.com. At 100 feet wide, it’s narrower than the wingspan of the 737-700, which is 112 feet, 7 inches. A 737-700 with winglets has a span of 117 feet, 5 inches, according to Boeing’s website.

Rocky Embankment

Flight 4013 stopped at the southeast end of the airport, about 100 to 200 feet from a rocky embankment above a highway, Schieffer said. Schieffer said he didn’t notice how close the jet had come to the slope until being told by a local official when he disembarked about 90 minutes after touchdown.

After the landing, a flight attendant came on the public address system and said, “Welcome to Branson,” according to Schieffer. A few minutes later, a pilot corrected that. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to tell you that we landed at the wrong airport,” he said, according to Schieffer. The pilot apologized for the inconvenience several times, Schieffer said.

Passengers and their baggage were taken by bus from Downtown airport to Branson, said Hawkins, the spokesman. Another plane was brought in to fly the next leg of the trip, to Dallas, Southwest said on its website.

Normal airport operations resumed about three hours after the landing when the plane was moved to a parking apron, said Mark Parent, the manager. He said the landing didn’t damage the runway, which handles 10,000 to 15,000 flights a year.

Atlas Incident

In the Atlas case, pilots landed at a municipal airfield with a runway half as long as that at the Air Force base. The pilots initially thought they had landed at the Beech Factory Airport in Wichita, according to a recording of radio calls on LiveATC.net.

The modified Boeing 747-400 Dreamlifter with an expanded fuselage designed to carry parts for Boeing’s latest model, the 787, took off the next day with a new crew and landed at McConnell. The FAA and Boeing investigated the incident.

In 2009, a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight overshot the Minneapolis airport after the pilots became distracted while working on their company-issued laptops, according to the NTSB.

“It’s not uncommon to have the incidents during the landing phase,” said David Esser, professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach Florida. Pilots can grow fatigued over the course of the flight, and landings require the most acuity, Esser said.

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