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Southwest Pilots Grounded After Airport Mix-Up

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) - U.S. officials are investigating why a Southwest Airlines flight landed at the wrong airport, where the runway is half as long as the one at the target destination and has a steep embankment at the end.

It's the second time in less than two months that a large jet has landed at the wrong U.S. airport.

Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King said the captain and first officer were removed from flying duties while the airline and federal aviation safety officials investigate the mistake.

The flight, carrying 124 passengers and five crew members, was scheduled to go from Chicago's Midway International Airport to Branson Airport in Missouri, airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said in a statement. But it landed Sunday evening under clear skies at Taney County Airport, 7 miles (11 kilometers) away.

"As soon as we touched down, the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said passenger Scott Schieffer. "I thought, 'Well, this is a very short runway and this must be how he has to land.' 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 (2,165 meters) long - a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County Airport is only slightly more than 3,700 feet (1,125 meters) because it is designed for small private planes.

Once Schieffer got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, maybe 100 feet (30 meters) away.

"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger and instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy," Schieffer said.

Mark Parent, manager of the smaller airport, described the distance as closer to 300 feet (91 meters). He said the runway is built partly on landfill, with a "significant drop-off" at the end.

No one was around when the Southwest flight landed, and airport staffers were called back after the unexpected arrival, Parent said. A Boeing 737 had never landed at the airfield, he said.

Hawkins said all the passengers and crew were safe, and no injuries were reported. He did not know why the plane went to the wrong airport.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency is investigating.

Hawkins said a plane was flown in specifically to take the passengers and crew to their final destination, Dallas.

Parent said he had no doubts that the plane would be able to take off safely from the smaller airport. 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 airport.

In November, a Boeing 747 that was supposed to deliver parts to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas landed at another airport 9 miles (14 kilometers) away. That plane was flown by a two-person crew and had no passengers.

Last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Florida landed without incident at a smaller airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area.

Almost a decade ago, a Northwest Airlines plane bound for Rapid City, South Dakota, with 117 passengers landed instead at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base. As the plane descended through clouds, one of the pilots reported, the crew saw a runway in front of them and mistakenly thought it was the right one.

Southwest Airlines Flight 4013, carrying 124 passengers and five crew members, was scheduled to go from Chicago's Midway International Airport to Branson Airport in Missouri, airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said in a statement. But it landed Sunday evening under clear skies at Taney County Airport, 7 miles (11 kilometers) away.

"As soon as we touched down, the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said passenger Scott Schieffer. "I thought, 'Well, this is a very short runway and this must be how he has to land.' 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 (2,165 meters) long - a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County Airport is only slightly more than 3,700 feet (1,125 meters) because it is designed for small private planes.

Once Schieffer got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, maybe 100 feet (30 meters) away.

"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger and instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy," Schieffer said.

Mark Parent, manager of the smaller airport, described the distance as closer to 300 feet (91 meters). He said the runway is built partly on landfill, with a "significant drop-off" at the end.

No one was around when the Southwest flight landed, and airport staffers were called back after the unexpected arrival, Parent said. A Boeing 737 had never landed at the airfield, he said.

Hawkins said all the passengers and crew were safe, and no injuries were reported. He did not know why the plane went to the wrong airport.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency is investigating.

Hawkins said a plane was flown in specifically to take the passengers and crew to their final destination, Dallas.

Parent said he had no doubts that the plane would be able to take off safely from the smaller airport. 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 airport.

In November, a Boeing 747 that was supposed to deliver parts to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas landed at another airport 9 miles (14 kilometers) away. That plane was flown by a two-person crew and had no passengers.

Last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Florida landed without incident at a smaller airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area.

Almost a decade ago, a Northwest Airlines plane bound for Rapid City, South Dakota, with 117 passengers landed instead at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base. As the plane descended through clouds, one of the pilots reported, the crew saw a runway in front of them and mistakenly thought it was the right one.


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