Tuesday, July 11, 2017
SFO near miss might have triggered ‘greatest aviation disaster in history’
By Matthias Gafni
The San Jose (CA) Mercury News
An Air Canada pilot on Friday night began his approach lining up to land on a taxiway full of airplanes, before being diverted and landing appropriately on a runway, according to the FAA.
SAN FRANCISCO — In what one aviation expert called a near-miss of what could have been the largest aviation disaster ever, an Air Canada pilot on Friday narrowly avoided a tragic mistake: landing on the San Francisco International Airport taxiway instead of the appropriate runway.
Sitting on Taxiway C shortly before midnight were four fully-loaded airplanes full of passengers and gas awaiting permission to take-off, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the “rare” incident. An air traffic controller sent the Air Canada Airbus 320 on a “go-around” — an unusual event where pilots must pull-up and circle around to try again — before landing safely, according to the federal agency.
FAA investigators are still trying to determine how close the Air Canada aircraft came to landing and potentially crashing into the four aircraft below, but the apparent pilot error already has the aviation industry buzzing.
“If it is true, what happened probably came close to the greatest aviation disaster in history,” said retired United Airlines Capt. Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. He said he’s been contacted by pilots from across the country about the incident.
“If you could imagine an Airbus colliding with four passenger aircraft wide bodies, full of fuel and passengers, then you can imagine how horrific this could have been,” he said.
Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman, said Flight AC759 from Toronto “landed normally without incident” after it initiated a “go-around.”
“We are still investigating the circumstances and therefore have no additional information to offer,” he said.
The SFO spokesman referred inquiries to the FAA, saying the airport had no comment on the event.
The aircraft had been cleared to land on Runway 28R, which runs parallel with that taxiway, according to the FAA. The pilot was flying the plane manually on a clear night when he lined up wrong, the federal agency said.
Audio from the air traffic controller communication archived by a user on LiveATC.net and reviewed by this newspaper organization showed how a the confused Air Canada pilot asks if he’s clear to land on 28R because he sees lights on the runway.
“There’s no one on 28R but you,” the air controller responds.
An unidentified voice, presumably another pilot, then chimes in: “Where’s this guy going. He’s on the taxiway.”
The air controller quickly tells the Air Canada pilot to “go around.” telling the pilot “it looks like you were lined up for Charlie (Taxiway C) there.”
A United Airlines pilot radios in: “United One, Air Canada flew directly over us.”
“Yeah, I saw that guys,” the control tower responds.
The event has launched a discussion among airline circles, Aimer said.
“This is pretty huge. My buddies called and asked if I knew about it,” the former pilot said. “They’re a sitting duck on the taxiway. They can’t go anywhere.”