Straying Jet Airliner Is Rerouted to Land Safely : Aviation: FAA officials say that pilot may have mistaken other ground lighting for runway lights on approach to John Wayne Airport, and that incident posed no safety threat.

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A Southwest Airlines jet from San Jose briefly lost its way over Orange County late Sunday night before it was rerouted and landed safely at John Wayne Airport.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said the pilot of the Boeing 737 may have confused other lighting on the ground with airport runway lights when he strayed from the normal path on final approach about 10:20 p.m. The incident did not pose a safety threat, officials said.

Airport tower manager Jeff Thorstenson said the Southwest flight carrying 96 passengers and five crew members was making a visual approach to the airport when the jet drifted west of the landing pattern, which generally parallels the southbound path of the Costa Mesa Freeway.


Thorstenson said the jet may have descended as low as 900 feet before air traffic controllers ordered the pilot to climb higher and make a second approach.

“What alerted controllers was not so much the altitude but that (the jetliner) was further west of the freeway,” Thorstenson said. “The approach was not what it should have been. It’s not something that happens everyday, but it’s not a big deal.”

On occasion, when pilots on final approach are flying under visual flight rules--using observation rather than depending on instruments--they may lose sight of the runway because of poor weather conditions or because they become confused by other lighting on the ground, Thorstenson said. When that happens, controllers are there to keep them on track. In-flight instrument landing systems are also available.

“My guess is that it may have been the other lighting on the ground (that caused the Sunday night misdirection), but I’d rather not speculate,” he said.

Southwest Airlines officials said they were not aware of the incident and that airline logs of the flight indicated nothing unusual about the 737’s landing.

“This flight was not flagged in any way regarding its landing,” Southwest spokeswoman Linda Burke Rutherford said. “We don’t feel it was serious.”


Despite the rerouting by controllers, Rutherford said the flight arrived on schedule, at 10:30 p.m.

Southwest Airlines only began operations in Orange County late last month, but Rutherford said it was unlikely that Sunday night’s incident could have been caused by unfamiliarity with local landing patterns.

“All pilots are alerted when we begin flying into new airports,” Rutherford said. “This could have been caused by momentary cloud cover or a confusing clutter of lights.”

Although such incidents are not routine, Thorstenson said they are not considered serious and generally do not warrant further investigation.

Thorstenson said he listened to a tape recording of the exchange between the Southwest pilot and controllers but found “no problem in the cockpit.”

While Thorstenson acknowledged that confusion with other ground lighting could have been a problem in this case, he said those instances are generally more common at larger metropolitan airports such as Los Angeles International.


Airport emergency officials said they were not alerted Sunday night to any potential safety problems in the vicinity of John Wayne Airport.

“If there was anything having to do with any kind of possible property loss or injury out there, we would have been notified,” said Capt. Dan Young of the Orange County Fire Department.