Federal officials are investigating why a Southwest Airlines flight that was supposed to land at Branson Airport in southwest Missouri instead landed at another airport about 7 miles away that only had about half as much runway.
Southwest Airlines Flight 4013, carrying 124 passengers and five crew members, was scheduled to go from Chicago's Midway International Airport to Branson Airport, airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said Sunday in a statement. But the Boeing 737-700 landed at Taney County Airport, which also is known as M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport.
The website for M. Graham Clark Airport says its longest runway is 3,738 feet. Branson Airport's website says its runway is 7,140 feet long.
"As soon as we touched down the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said passenger Scott Schieffer, a 36-year-old attorney from Dallas. "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."
The flight attendant announced "Welcome 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.'"
At first, Schieffer said, he considered it only an inconvenience. But once he got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, maybe 100 feet away, which Schieffer said appeared to end abruptly.
"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.
Hawkins said all the passengers and crew were safe and no injuries were reported. He did not have information on why the plane went to the wrong airport. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency is investigating the incident.
Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, declined to speculate on why it landed at the wrong airport.
"I think the best thing to do is to leave that to Southwest to answer," Bourk said. "What I can tell you is our airport was functioning normally. The control tower was functioning normally."
Bourk said the Southwest pilot was in communication with the Branson Airport tower, and at approximately 6 p.m. was cleared to land at the Branson Airport. He said the plane landed at 6:09 p.m. at the Taney County airport.
Skies were clear at the time, and the temperature was in the 50s, Bourk said.
Bourk said the Branson airport sent ground equipment to help. Passengers were loaded on buses and made the seven-mile trip to Branson. Southwest brought in another plane and passengers flying on to Love Fiend in Dallas departed around 10 p.m., Bourke said.
Hawkins told The Associated Press the aircraft at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport will be able to take off on the smaller runway, and Southwest expects to fly it out "as early as (Monday) morning."
Messages left for comment from M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport were not immediately returned.
It's the second time in less than two months that a large jet has landed at the wrong airport.
In November, a Boeing 747 flown by a two-person crew with no passengers that was supposed to deliver parts to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., 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 issues, and the pilot chose to fly visually when he spotted the brightly lit runway at Jabara.
Almost a decade ago, a Northwest Airlines plane bound for Rapid City, S.D., 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.
Last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., 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.
Southwest flies to and from Chicago, Houston and Dallas out of the Branson Airport, Bourk said. But that will end in June. Southwest announced last month it was dropping service in Branson, Key West, Fla., and Jackson, Miss. The airline said it can't make money serving the smaller markets.
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