We’ve all taken a wrong expressway exit and ended up miles from our intended destination, but the stakes are much higher when a pilot makes a similar mistake.
Southwest Flight 4013, which took off from Chicago’s Midway International Airport, was supposed to land at Branson Airport in southwest Missouri. Instead, the Boeing 737-700 touched down at Taney County’s M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, which is also in southwest Missouri.
That’s where the similarities between the two airports end. The Taney County airport, seven miles from where Flight 4013 was supposed to land, has a much shorter runway and steep cliffs at each end.
While it’s tempting to make jokes about this unfortunate miscue counting against Southwest’s much-ballyhooed on-time arrival stats, the fact is that the wrong-airport landing is an embarrassment to pilots and Southwest in particular.
The good news is that the two pilots recognized the mistake in time and brought the plane to an abrupt skidding halt with no injuries to passengers.
Just two months ago, a Boeing 747 scheduled to deliver cargo to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., accidentally landed at another airport nine miles north. In fact, landing miscues like these are reported every few months somewhere around the globe.
Yet with the high-tech instruments available to today’s airline industry, it’s important that everything possible be done to prevent these errant landings.
The Federal Aviation Administration, National Transportation Safety Board and Southwest Airlines are investigating what happened with Flight 4013. Aviation experts, meanwhile, are asking questions about whether poor training, overreliance on instruments and auto-flight, or pilots’ wrong assumptions are at the heart of the problem. For example, pilots are supposed to match up radio signals to make sure they are on course. Right now we don’t know whether that happened.
Aviation experts say pilots sometimes don’t follow standard procedures or ask themselves all the questions they should. After the Kansas incident, in which the cargo plane ended up at Jabara Airport, retired pilot Tom Bunn told Fox News that pilot misidentification of an airport is like a shopper returning to his car at the mall. "Occasionally you approach a car and then realize, though it looks the same as yours, it isn’t yours," he said.
In other words, a pilot expects to see an airport, suddenly sees one and immediately assumes it is the proper one.
While these wrong landings can be explained, that doesn’t make them excusable. Luckily, in this case, the pilots recovered their bearings and passengers suffered no more than a very hard landing.
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