The cockpit crew of the Southwest Airlines plane that landed at the wrong southwest Missouri airport on Sunday night was confused by the bright lights of a smaller landing field, according to a preliminary report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The cockpit voice recorder indicates the crew was informed by air traffic control that the plane was 15 miles from Branson Airport, which was the intended destination. But the pilots said they had the airport in sight, so air traffic control cleared the plane for a visual approach and landing on Runway 14.
The plane, however, really was several miles away and instead landed at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Hollister, Mo.
The NTSB said the captain, which it did not identify, has been employed by Southwest since 1999 and has about 16,000 hours of flight time as a captain on the Boeing 737. He told investigators this was his first flight into Branson.
The first officer, also not identified, has been with Southwest since 2001 and has about 25,000 flight hours. He told investigators he had flown into Branson once before, but that was in daylight.
The Southwest plane’s approach had been programmed into the flight management system, but the pilots believed their eyes instead of the instruments, according to interviews with NTSB investigators on Thursday.
“They cited the bright runway lights at (Clark airport) and the fact that the runway was oriented in a similar direction,” the preliminary report stated. “They also informed investigators that 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 had landed.”
The pilots said they had to brake heavily to bring the aircraft to a stop on the shorter runway. They then advised the Branson tower they had landed at the wrong airport.
There were no injuries. NTSB said the investigation is ongoing.