Southwest pilots cite bright lights in Missouri airport mixup

Southwest Airlines pilots cited "bright runway lights" as part of the reason they landed at the wrong Missouri airport this week, federal officials said.

In interviews with National Transportation Safety Board investigators on Thursday, pilots of Southwest Flight 4013 said "they first saw the airport beacon and the runway lights of M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, located in Hollister, Mo., which they mistakenly identified as Branson Airport," according to an NTSB news release.

The pilots also attributed part of the mix-up to the direction of the runway at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, which is "oriented in a similar direction" as Branson Airport's runway, seven miles away.

According to the Southwest aircraft's cockpit voice recorder, NTSB said, air traffic control had notified the crew when they were 15 miles from the plane's intended target. The pilots told air traffic control that they had the airfield in sight and were cleared for a visual approach to Branson Airport.

Shortly after landing in Hollister, the crew realized they were at the wrong airport.

The plane was carrying 124 passengers and a crew of five. It took off from Chicago's Midway International Airport bound for Branson Airport, then Dallas.

The website, which tracks flights, said the Southwest flight landed at 6:11 p.m. Sunday, when it was partly cloudy. 

There were no injuries reported, but passengers told reporters it was an abrupt landing.

"The pilot applied the brakes really strongly," Dallas attorney Scott Schieffer, who was on the flight, told WFAA-TV. "You could hear it and you could certainly feel it."

Pilots told NTSB that they "utilized heavy braking to bring the aircraft to the stop" just before notifying the the Branson Airport tower that they had landed in the wrong airport.

Passengers were taken to the larger airport, where they were placed on a plane for Dallas.

After the incident, Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said in an email to reporters that the pilots had been placed on paid leave pending the investigation.  

It was the captain's first time flying to Branson Airport and the first officer's second time, the crew members told officials.

NTSB said the investigation was ongoing.


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