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NTSB: Pilots were confused by wrong airport's lights

by JOAN LOWY Associated Press on January 18, 2014 10:34 AM

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 seven 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.

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