Wrong Airport Pilots Say Bright Runway Lights, Orientation Led to Confusion: NTSB Update

The National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary information from its investigation into the recent landing of a Southwest Airlines 737 at the wrong airport in Missouri.

The pilots indicated in interviews the bright lights and runway orientation led to confusion on Jan. 13, when they mistakenly landed at a smaller airport seven miles away from their intended one.

The captain, who has been with Dallas-based Southwest since 1999, told investigators it was his first flight to Branson Airport. The first officer has been with Southwest since 2001 and told investigators he had flown to Branson Airport once during daylight hours.

During NTSB interviews, the pilots told investigators that the approach had been programmed into their flight management system, but that when they saw the airport beacon and the runway lights of M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Hollister, Mo., they mistakenly identified it as Branson Airport.

The pilots explained to NTSB investigators the bright runway lights and the fact that the runway was oriented in a similar direction led them to believe they were landing at Branson Airport.

They told investigators they flew a visual approach into what they believed to be Branson Airport and that they did not realize they were at the wrong airport until they landed.

The pilots say they had to brake heavily to bring the aircraft to a stop and then advised the Branson Airport tower that they had landed at the wrong airport.

The NTSB says it has analyzed data from the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. According to the cockpit voice recorder the Southwest crew was informed by air traffic control that they were 15 miles from their intended target, which was Branson Airport.

The crew responded that they had the airfield in sight and the control tower cleared Southwest Flight 4013 for a visual approach and landing on runway 14 at Branson Airport.

According to the cockpit voice recorder, the landing was uneventful and it was not until shortly after landing that the crew realized they had landed at the wrong airport.

No one was injured in the landing at a small airport built for light jets and private planes, but passengers smelled burning rubber as the pilots braked hard to stop near the end of the runway, which gives way to a steep drop-off.

The manager of the Taney County Airport, which opened in 1970 and doesn't have a control tower, said no 737 had ever landed there.

The two pilots, each with at least 12 years at Southwest, were placed on paid leave after the incident. A dispatcher who was authorized to sit behind the captain and first officer on the flight was also placed on paid leave.

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