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Southwest Airlines pilots land jet at wrong airport

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A 2007 Southwest Airlines (WN) Boeing 737-700, tail number N272WN, operating as flight WN 4013, carrying 124 passengers and 5 crew members, mistakenly landed at the wrong Missouri airport according to the Aviation Safety Network, KXAS, the NBC news affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, CNN, and other media sources in reports published on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014.

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The strange incident happened on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 at 6:11 p.m. CST. There was no damage to the aircraft, its occupants, or anyone on the ground. The plane was on a scheduled flight from Chicago Midway Airport (MDW) to Branson Airport (BKG), which is located 8 miles south by southeast of the central business district of Branson, Mo. Instead, the plane landed at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport (PLK), also called Taney County Airport, which is situated one mile south of Branson. The two facilities are about 6-miles apart.

Both fields have a single runway surrounded by hills and woodlands. Although the two landing strips are similarly orientated, within 20-degrees of each other and in a southeast by northwest configuration, as seen in the attached slide show, they have major operational differences. Branson Airport has a concrete runway that is 7,140 feet long, while the asphalt runway at Taney County Airport is much shorter, measuring just 3,738 feet. The smaller airport was originally developed as a private airport by the College of the Ozarks for use in their aviation science department.

As a result of touching down on a much shorter runway, the pilot-in-command had to apply braking for a longer time to bring the aircraft to a safe stop. The plane came to rest about 500 feet from the end of the runway according to Chris Berndt, the Western Taney County Fire District fire chief and emergency management director.

Passengers reported that they were thrust forward as the plane screeched to a stop well short of the southeast parameter boundary of runway 12. If the aircraft had not been able to stop, it might have plunged down a steep hillside leading to U.S. 65, a busy 4-lane highway.

Data published by Aircraft Profiles indicate that the Boeing 737-700 requires a landing distance of 1,418 meters or 4,736 feet under average normal landing conditions, about 1,000 feet longer than the Taney County Airport runway. Boeing's own performance summary specifications calls for a basic landing field length of 4,650 feet for maximum landing weight (MLW).

While there was no runway excursion, and no reported injuries, the incident has raised questions on aviation safety and is being reviewed by the NTSB and the carrier itself. Both pilots have been placed on paid leave while the airline and federal authorities investigate how the landing mishap happened. There are published reports that Branson Airport uses visual flight rules (VFR) but also employs a localizer (LOC) navigation aide which provides runway guidance to aircraft.

All modern commercial aircraft have multiple radio, electronic and computer navigation systems that include an automatic direction finder (ADF), inertial navigation, compasses, radar navigation, VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) and a global navigation satellite system or GNSS.

The senior pilot was reported to have over 14 years of experience flying Boeing 737 aircraft for Southwest. According to Terry Maxon, an aviation writer with The Dallas Morning News, Branson Airport is a new destination for the carrier, which began service there on March 9, 2013. Branson World is reporting that the airline will end service to Branson Airport on June 7, 2014. Southwest currently operates three arrivals and departures each day to and from Branson Airport, serving Chicago, Houston, and Dallas.

Landing at a wrong airport is a rare occurrence. On Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter cargo plane mistakenly landed at the small Colonel James Jabara Airport (AAO) located nine miles northeast of the central business district of Wichita, Kan. instead of McConnell Air Force Base (IAB), which is about 9 miles to the south. The flight had originated from JFK Airport in New York. The pilots had been given clearance to land at the military base, but had confused the two facilities. There were also no injuries or damage to equipment in that mishap.

Even with advanced aviation technology such errors still occur. An investigation and analysis of this incident may help to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

Tell us your thoughts. Please leave comments below or by email and subscribe to get future updates. There is also expanded coverage of other recent news articles. You may also wish to follow our dispatches as the News Analysis Examiner.

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