DALLAS (AP) — The pilots of a Southwest Airlines flight that mistakenly landed at the wrong Missouri airport were grounded Monday, less than a day after they touched down at a small airfield that gave them only half as much room as normal to stop the jet.
Southwest Flight 4013 was traveling Sunday evening from Chicago's Midway Airport to Branson Airport but instead landed at tiny Taney County Airport seven miles away.
No one was hurt, but after the 124 passengers were let off the plane, they noticed the airliner had come dangerously close to the end of the runway, where it could have tumbled down a steep embankment if it had left the pavement.
"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 it's common for pilots to be grounded 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 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.
The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating, but agency spokesman Tony Molinaro declined to elaborate.
At the time of the landing, around 6 p.m., skies were clear, with the temperature in the 50s, said Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport.
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."