By Alan Scher Zagier
ST. LOUIS: A federal agency overseeing transportation safety is warning pilots to take extra precautions after a pair of recent plane landings at the wrong Midwest airports.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued the alert Wednesday, about three months after a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet with 124 passengers mistakenly landed at a small airport in southwest Missouri intended for light jets and private planes, rather than at the commercial airport several miles away in Branson. The Southwest pilots, who remain on paid leave, landed at night by sight instead of using instruments to guide their approach. No was injured, but passengers smelled burning rubber as the pilots braked hard to stop near the end of the shorter runway, just before a steep drop into a ravine.
In November 2013, an Atlas Air cargo plane headed from New York for a U.S. Air Force base near Wichita, Kansas, instead landed 12 miles away at an airstrip with a runway half the size. That wrong landing also took place at night — a particular risk factor cited by the safety alert, as pilots react to the runway lights of the first airport they see during descent.
Government safety data and news reports reviewed by The Associated Press shows that at least 150 flights made such mistakes over the past two decades. Thirty-five of those cases involved wrong landings, with the other 115 cases consisting of aborted landing attempts or erroneous approaches. The actual number of wrong landings is likely higher.
“It’s a reminder about how important it is to be vigilant about these procedures,” said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson. “They could have had far worse outcomes.”
The safety board has issued 22 aviation safety alerts since 2006 on topics ranging from child passenger safety to handling icy wings before takeoff.
“They needed to do something,” said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California. “It looks like a very diplomatic way for them to put pilots on notice to do the job they were trained for.”
In addition to possibly having to land on shorter runways, pilots in such instances risk collisions with construction vehicles or midair collisions with departing planes that don’t expect the airspace intrusion, Barr said.