"As soon as we touched down, the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said Scott Schieffer, a Dallas attorney. "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."
Branson Airport has a runway that is more than 7,100 feet long — a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County is only slightly more than 3,700 feet because it is designed for small private planes.
After the jet stopped, a flight attendant welcomed passengers 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.'"
Southwest spokesman Brandy King said grounding the pilots involved is common while the airline and federal aviation officials investigate.
Both pilots are Southwest veterans. The captain is in his 15th year flying for the carrier. The first officer will mark 13 years in June, the airline said.
At first, Schieffer said, he considered the error only an inconvenience. But once he got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, which he estimated as about 100 feet away.
"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger," he said. "And instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy."
Mark Parent, manager of the smaller airport also known as M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, described the distance as closer to 300 feet. He said the runway is built partly on landfill. At the end, there is a "significant drop-off," with a ravine beneath it, then busy U.S. 65 on the other side.
He said a Boeing 737 had never landed at the small airfield, which opened in 1970 and normally handles light jets, turboprops and small aircraft for the charter, corporate and tourism markets.
No one was at the airport when the Southwest flight landed. Airport employees had gone home about an hour earlier but were called back after the unexpected arrival, Parent said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency was investigating, but he declined to elaborate.
Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, said the Southwest pilot was in communication with the airport tower, which cleared him to land around 6 p.m. The plane touched down a few moments later at the other airport.
Skies were clear at the time, with the temperature in the 50s, Bourk said.
A third Southwest employee — not a pilot — was in the cockpit jumpseat, King said. That would not be unusual, since flight attendants sometimes ride along to meet another flight on which they are scheduled to work, a practice known as "deadheading."
After the landing, passengers were loaded on buses for the 7-mile trip to Branson. Southwest brought in another plane for passengers flying on to Love Field in Dallas. That flight departed around 10 p.m., Bourke said.