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NTSB: Pilots admit mistaking county airport for Branson

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 8:48 AM EST, Sat January 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The NTSB releases new information on last Sunday's wrong airport landing in Missouri
  • The plane's pilots say the on-board computer was correctly programmed
  • But they visually identified the wrong airport
  • The pilots didn't realize they were at the wrong airport until the plane had landed

Washington (CNN) -- The pilots of Southwest flight 4013 say that Branson Airport was correctly programmed into their on-board computer Sunday, but that they "mistakenly identified" another airport as Branson when they saw its bright lights, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The explanation, aviators say, is an example of "confirmation bias," the tendency of people to confirm their beliefs, and dismiss conflicting information.

The captain, a veteran with 16,000 hours of flying experience, had never before flown into Branson, investigators were told.

The first officer had flown into the airport on one previous occasion, but during daylight, investigators said.

Southwest Airlines suspended both pilots following the incident, pending the outcome of the investigation, which is continuing.

According to the NTSB, the pilots told investigators that the approach had been programmed into their flight management system. But that they first saw the airport beacon and the runway lights of M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, located in Hollister, Missouri, about seven miles away.

The pilots "mistakenly identified" it as Branson Airport, the NTSB said.

They cited the bright runway lights at Clark Downtown Airport and the fact that the runway was oriented in a similar direction.

They told investigators they flew a visual approach into the airport and did not realize they were at the wrong airport until they had landed.

They confirmed that they utilized heavy braking to bring the aircraft to a stop and then advised the Branson Airport tower that they had landed at the wrong airport.

The NTSB said it has downloaded information from the plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder and are analyzing the data.

The cockpit voice recorder shows air traffic controllers informed the Southwest crew that that they were 15 miles from their intended target, which was Branson Airport. The crew responded that they had the airfield in sight and controllers cleared the aircraft for a visual approach and landing on runway 14 at Branson Airport.

According to the cockpit voice recorder, the landing was uneventful and it was not until shortly after touching down that the crew realized they had landed at the wrong airport.

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