Southwest suspends pilots who landed at wrong airport

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by Associated Press

khou.com

Posted on January 13, 2014 at 8:37 AM

Updated Monday, Jan 13 at 6:08 PM

DALLAS -- The pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight that mistakenly landed at the wrong 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 (11 kilometers) 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 (2,164 meters) long - a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County is only slightly more than 3,700 feet (1,128 meters) 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 grounding the pilots involved is common 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.

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.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency was investigating, but he declined to elaborate.

After the landing, passengers were loaded on buses for the 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.

Southwest spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said the jet would travel to Tulsa for fuel, then return to service. About 200 people gathered at the airport to watch the takeoff and cheered loudly as the climbed away without incident.

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 make an approach toward the wrong airport, but the pilot realizes the error and aborts the landing in time.

In November, a freight-carrying Boeing 747 that was supposed to deliver parts to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, 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.

Last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Florida, landed without incident at the small Peter O. Knight Airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area, and base officials introduced an updated landing procedure.

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