Pilots who landed at wrong airport blame the mishap on similar runway lights, orientation

Two pilots who landed at the wrong airport say the error happened because the orientation and runway lights of two different airports were similar.

That's according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which issued its findings on the mishap on Friday.

The Jan. 13 Southwest flight, headed from Chicago to Dallas, was supposed to land at Branson Airport in Missouri, but instead landed at a smaller airport just outside of town.

A Southwest spokesman described the landing as uneventful, despite the smaller runway. But still, it raised questions about how the pilots could end up at the wrong airport. 

The captain has been with Southwest since 1999, but this was his first flight into Branson Airport. The first officer, who has been with Southwest since 2001, had flown there one time before, but it was during daylight hours.

Here is a portion of the official findings from the NTSB report:

During the interviews, 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, Mo., which they mistakenly identified as Branson Airport. They cited the bright runway lights at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport and the fact that the runway was oriented in a similar direction.

They also informed investigators that they flew a visual approach into what they believed to be Branson Airport and that they 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.

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