How does an airline pilot end up landing at the wrong airport?

Fun fact: I was legally able to pilot an airplane by myself before I was licensed to drive a car. In fact, I soloed on my 16th birthday. About a year later, my family was planning to relocate to the Branson area to ride the construction boom happening there. I flew with my grandparents in their small plane.

My past caught up with me today in a rather odd way via a recent headline news story. For a brief time at the end of my junior year of high school, I moved with my family to the Ozarks, just outside of Branson, Missouri. A long-haired hippy from California, I wasn’t the most popular kid in school, and the rest of my family found it hard to fit in as well. A few months later, we were back in Southern California.

The airport nearest our home, where we kept the plane, was a small private airport associated with a private college. While much smaller than the main Branson airport, there were some advantages to the smaller airport – most importantly, it was significantly less crowded and therefore easier to get in and out of. That’s why some of the local stars like Roy Clark used the airport for their personal aircraft.

I was navigating during our flight into Branson, so I can understand on some level how a pilot might make a mistake in finding the right airport. But when you’re in a small plane that doesn’t go over about 200 mph, you can pretty much land anywhere.

When you’re flying a 737 as a commercial airline pilot, with a full crew—and not to mention a plane full of paying customers— it is a little harder to understand how the following happened:

“It’s not common, but it’s not unheard of,” said pilot Mark Weiss, a 20-year veteran of commercial aviation who has frequently flown Boeing 737-700s, the same kind of aircraft that touched down Sunday at a small airport in Taney County, Missouri, about seven miles from where it was supposed to land at Branson Airport.

The plane stopped about 500 feet from the end of a runway at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, but no one was injured, said Chris Berndt, the Western Taney County Fire District fire chief and emergency management director.

“There are a lot of questions, and I suspect this is a matter of procedures not being followed, something along the long chain of everything you must do and constantly do as a pilot for safety,” Weiss said.

Yeah, there is no comparison between Branson Airport and Clark field. The crew and passengers are lucky, to say the least.

But how does that happen?

Flying an airplane is really about following one checklist after another. There are checklists before you ever enter the plane, all the way to securing the wheels after shutting down and everything in between. Door pops open in flight? Bird hits the windshield? There’s a checklist for that. In addition, virtually every aspect of flight involves redundancy: from the various components and systems, even to the requirement for multiple pilots on commercial airlines.

In general, pilots are very conscientious professionals and take the responsibility they have for others’ lives very seriously. Unfortunately, they are also underpaid and overworked.

The entire aviation industry has taken huge hits following 9/11, and due to economic and energy efficiency issues. Professional pilots have paid the price. Occasionally situations like this occur that illustrate that point.

We’ll see what the FAA or NTSB conclude, but I’ll bet fatigue and stress are really to blame.

Link: CNN