The pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight that mistakenly landed at the wrong Missouri airport were grounded Monday, less than a day after they touched down at a small airfield that gave them only half as much room as normal to stop the jet.
Southwest Flight 4013 was traveling Sunday evening from Chicago's Midway Airport to Branson Airport but instead landed at tiny Taney County Airport seven miles away.
No one was hurt, but after the 124 passengers were let off the plane, they noticed the airliner had come dangerously close to the end of the runway, where it could have tumbled down a steep embankment if it had left the pavement.
"As soon as we touched down, the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said Scott Schieffer, a Dallas attorney. "I was wearing a seatbelt, but I was lurched forward because of the heavy pressure of the brake. You could smell burnt rubber, a very distinct smell of burnt rubber as we were stopping."
Branson Airport has a runway that is more than 7,100 feet long - a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County is only slightly more than 3,700 feet because it is designed for small private planes.
After the jet stopped, a flight attendant welcomed passengers to Branson, Schieffer said. Then, after a few moments, "the pilot came on and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to tell you we landed at the wrong airport.'"
Southwest spokesman Brandy King said it's common for pilots to be grounded while the airline and federal aviation officials investigate.
Both pilots are Southwest veterans. The captain is in his 15th year flying for the carrier. The first officer will mark 13 years in June, the airline said.
At first, Schieffer said, he considered the error only an inconvenience. But once he got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, which he estimated as about 100 feet away.
"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger," he said. "And instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy."
Mark Parent, manager of the smaller airport also known as M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, described the distance as closer to 300 feet. He said the runway is built partly on landfill. At the end, there is a "significant drop-off," with a ravine beneath it, then busy U.S. 65 on the other side.
He said a Boeing 737 had never landed at the small airfield, which normally handles light jets, turboprops and small aircraft for the charter, corporate and tourism markets.
No one was at the airport when the Southwest flight landed. Airport employees had gone home about an hour earlier but were called back after the unexpected arrival, Parent said.
The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating, but agency spokesman Tony Molinaro declined to elaborate.
At the time of the landing, around 6 p.m., skies were clear, with the temperature in the 50s, said Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport.
A third Southwest employee - not a pilot - was in the cockpit jumpseat, King said. That would not be unusual, since flight attendants sometimes ride along to meet another flight on which they are scheduled to work, a practice known as "deadheading."
Passengers were loaded on buses for the 7-mile trip to Branson. Southwest brought in another plane for passengers flying on to Love Field in Dallas. That flight departed around 10 p.m., Bourke said.
By mid-afternoon Monday, the plane involved in the mistaken landing was airborne again after an uneventful takeoff from the county airport. About 200 people gathered to watch the takeoff and cheered loudly as the jet climbed away.
It was scheduled to travel to Tulsa for fuel, then return to service.
The minimum runway length needed to take off varies depending on a plane's weight, the temperature and other factors. Based on Boeing documents, a lightly loaded 737-700 can take off from a runway about the length of the county airport.
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 "visually," that is, without the aid of the autopilot, in clear weather.
The errors also typically involve low-traffic airports situated close together with runways aligned to the same or similar compass points.
"It's unlikely that you would have this problem between JFK and LaGuardia or Newark and LaGuardia," said former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia, referring to three New York-area airports. "They are too busy."
Pilots who are hand-flying - which is encouraged in some circumstances to keep skills sharp - look for runway lights to line up for landing. If the pilot sees the smaller airport runway, it would not be obvious from a distance of many miles that it's too short, Goglia said.
Once the pilot tells the control tower that he has the runway in sight, the plane is typically cleared to land. Air traffic controllers have no way of knowing if the pilot might actually be looking at the wrong airport.
Wrong-airport landings have been happening about twice a year for the past several years, Goglia said. Safety experts believe there are many more instances of planes that begin an approach toward the wrong airport, but the pilot realizes the error and aborts the landing in time.
In the Missouri case, a key question for investigators will be why the second Southwest pilot, who was not flying the plane, did not catch the problem in time to prevent the landing. Typically, the pilot not flying the plane is supposed to be closely monitoring navigation aids and other aircraft systems.
Sunday's event was the second time in less than 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 9 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.
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