Wrong-Airport Southwest Pilot Hadn’t Flown to Branson

The captain of a Southwest Airlines Co. plane that landed at the wrong Branson, Missouri, airport Jan. 12 had never flown there, and the pilots didn’t realize their error until they were on the ground, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said.

While the pilots programmed Branson Airport into their flight management computers, they saw a beacon at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport and headed for it, the investigative agency said in an e-mailed statement today.

“They confirmed that they utilized heavy braking to bring the aircraft to a stop and then advised the Branson Airport tower that they had landed at the wrong airport,” the NTSB said in its first update following the incident.

Southwest Flight 4013, from Chicago’s Midway Airport, landed about 6 p.m. local time with 124 passengers and a crew of five. The co-pilot had landed at Branson once, and that was in daylight, according to the NTSB.

The landing strip at the municipal airport is 3,738 feet long, compared with 7,140 feet at Branson Airport, according to aviation website AirNav.com. The airports are 7 miles (11 kilometers) apart and their runways point in a similar direction.

The Southwest landing 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.

Pilots Suspended

Southwest declined to comment on the NTSB update, Brandy King, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “We continue to work closely with the authorities and once we receive the final NTSB report, we will conduct a thorough review,” King said.

A controller in the Branson Airport tower radioed the pilots to tell them they were about 15 miles from their intended destination, according to the NTSB.

The crew replied that they had the airport in sight. The controller then cleared them to land using visual rules. While navigation equipment would have shown the pilots the correct location of the airport, crews often fly the final few miles to a runway manually.

The pilots told investigators they didn’t suspect anything was wrong because of the brightness of Downtown Airport’s runway lights and its landing strip has a similar orientation to Branson’s.

The pilots were suspended with pay pending the outcome of investigations by U.S. agencies and the carrier. The captain, who joined Southwest in 1999, has about 16,000 flight hours, according to the NTSB. The co-pilot began work at Southwest in 2001 and has flown 25,000 hours.

The safety board didn’t provide information on the role of a Southwest dispatcher who was sitting in a third seat in the rear of the cockpit. Dispatchers work with pilots on flight plans, weather and fuel, and are permitted to ride in the cockpit.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.