A Southwest Airlines plane landed at the wrong airport in Missouri Sunday night and barely avoided a crash. A spokesperson for the airline said Flight 4013 from Chicago’s Midway airport was supposed to land at Branson airport Sunday evening, but somehow ended up landing at Taney County airport.
This was a problem because the plane is a commercial passenger class vehicle (a Boeing 737-700 with 124 passengers and five crew members) which needed a much larger runway to land safely. The airport in Taney County is only meant for smaller aircraft, and the runway was shorter than expected, ending around 40 feet short of a cliff.
The two airports are approximately nine miles apart, so it may have been confusion on the part of the pilot of the Southwest Airlines plane. The exact cause of the misdirection is unknown. Apparently the pilot knew something was wrong when the runway turned out to be just over half of what he was expecting. The plane had begun to brake hard enough to burn rubber, according to passenger Scott Schieffer, who tweeted a picture of the runway, showing the skidmarks.
— Scott Schieffer (@ScottDallasTX) January 13, 2014
When it was revealed that the plane had landed at the wrong airport, the passengers (who had already taken off from Chicago an hour late) were driven to Branson airport to connect with a flight the rest of the way to Dallas, Texas. The plane is still grounded.
Thankfully the plane landed safely enough and nobody was hurt, though investigations are still underway to discover what caused the plane to land at the wrong airport. The passengers and crew had reportedly stayed calm and professional throughout the erroneous landing, but the mood had turned somber when everybody realized how close they had come to going over a cliff.
Kent Wien of the Cockpit Chronicles blog speculated about what could have contributed to the Southwest Airlines plane landing at the wrong airport:
“When the conditions are clear, a visual approach is a common way to transition from the arrival to a landing. Coming in from the north, it would be easy to mistake these two airports, as the smaller field would appear before the destination. This is more likely when a flight isn’t backed up with an instrument approach for reference, even though the two runways are six miles apart in this case.”
In other words, the pilot may have seen the smaller airport and mistook it for his destination, as close as the two appeared from that distance. Again, it is unknown exactly why the Southwest Airlines plane landed at the wrong airport, but investigations are underway.