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Southwest pilots suspended after landing jetliner at wrong Branson airport

Updated: 2014-01-14T13:31:15Z

By DONALD BRADLEY and MIKE McGRAW

The Kansas City Star

As soon as the wheels touched, the pilot laid on the brakes and didn’t let up.

Passengers lurched forward, seat belts digging into their middles. The plane eventually squealed to a stop — and just sat there.

“Welcome to Branson,” a Southwest Airlines flight attendant announced over the intercom Sunday evening.

Well, sort of. The pilot then came on and said: “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. We landed at the wrong airport.”

And one with a much shorter runway for smaller aircraft. In fact, the one at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Hollister, Mo., is about half the length of Branson Airport’s 7,140 feet runway.

Scott Schieffer, a Dallas lawyer who was one of the 124 passengers on Flight 4013 from Chicago, said that when he got off and began to take pictures of the plane and other passengers, an airport worker told him, “Son, you got that camera pointed the wrong direction.”

The man pointed toward the end of the runway.

If the plane, which set down at 6:10 p.m. Sunday, had been unable to stop, it could have gone over a ledge, down a steep embankment and plummeted onto U.S. 65.

Officials said it stopped 300 feet from the end. Schieffer said it looked too close for him.

For 90 minutes after landing, while awaiting buses from Branson Airport, passengers remained on board, eating peanuts and drinking water.

“Some asked for something stronger, but they couldn’t get it,” Schieffer said.

No one was injured.

The two airports are about six miles apart. But give that flight attendant credit: The Clark airport in Hollister is actually closer to Branson than Branson Airport.

A joint investigation of the “wrong airport” incident is being conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

In a statement Monday, Southwest said the two pilots had been placed on paid leave, pending the conclusion of an investigation. The captain on the flight is a 14-year Southwest employee, and the first officer has been with Southwest for 12 years, the company said.

But pilots are not the only ones who can be blamed for such blunders, said Tom Reich, an aviation expert involved in airport management for AvPORTS Management LLC. Air traffic controllers can warn pilots if they appear to be heading for the wrong airport, he said.

Southwest said it had “reached out” to each passenger to apologize, refund their ticket prices and provide future travel credits as a gesture of goodwill.

Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, said that after passengers were bused to Branson, the ones going on to Dallas departed at 10:36 p.m. Sunday, about five hours behind schedule.

The Southwest jet managed to take off from Hollister about 3 p.m. Monday after workers prepared for a takeoff on the short runway.

Bourk had no explanation for what happened. He said his airport was “operating normally, weather conditions were good, and the control tower was open.”

So how does a modern, computer-laden, GPS-equipped 70-ton passenger jet end up at the wrong airport?

Pilot error, said aviation expert Mary Schiavo: failure to monitor the plane’s instruments and not paying attention to runway numbers and other visible variables.

It happens — primarily in good weather, Schiavo said — when pilots opt to “hand fly” their jets instead of allowing onboard computers to do it.

“If they had been flying on instruments, it would have taken them straight in (to the right airport),” said Schiavo, former inspector general at the U.S. Department of Transportation and now a private attorney who represents victims of air crashes.

Under visual flight rules, however, air traffic controllers are not required to keep close tabs on planes unless air traffic is heavy and controllers have to keep traffic separated, Schiavo said.

Air space around Branson is not all that busy, she added, and the runways at the two airports roughly run in the same direction.

“A lot gets swept away when controllers and pilots accept visual clearance to land,” Schiavo said, adding that pilots are usually much more concerned with keeping the right altitude, guide slope and speed than they are with surrounding terrain.

“In this case, they would have been better off if they had let the plane do it.”

Schiavo said the pilot of the Boeing 737-700 probably wasn’t sure he was at the wrong airport until about the time his wheels hit the runway, by which time it is too late to pull up and head for the correct airport.

But she said he must have realized his mistake early on — and that he was on a short runway — because he started braking immediately.

“This could have had a very bad result,” Schiavo said. “Everybody was very fortunate here.”

“Wrong airport” landings are fairly common, especially for small private planes, she said.

In fact, before Sunday’s Branson incident, the most recent documented “wrong airport” landing of a large plane occurred in November in Wichita.

Federal aviation officials are still investigating that incident, in which a Boeing Dreamlifter cargo plane operated by Atlas Air mistakenly landed at Col. James Jabara Airport instead of McConnell Air Force Base, both near Wichita. There were no injuries, and the plane was not damaged.

A report on that incident in The Wichita Eagle indicated that the nighttime landing was being controlled by onboard instruments until the pilot saw what he thought was the McConnell runway. He then took the plane off autopilot and landed at the wrong airport.

Those incidents may finally prompt federal aviation officials to add one more item to the final landing checklists of commercial pilots, Schiavo said: Check your coordinates.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com. To reach Mike McGraw, call 816-234-4423 or send email to mcgraw@kcstar.com.

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