Near disaster at San Francisco airport

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An Air Canada plane preparing to land in San Francisco almost smashed into four planes on the ground when the pilot mistakenly aimed for the parallel taxiway rather than the runway itself.

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 runway.

Sitting on Taxiway C shortly before midnight were four airplanes full of passengers and fuel awaiting permission to take off, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the “rare” incident. An air traffic controller sent the descending Air Canada Airbus 320 on a “go-around” — an unusual event where pilots must pull up and circle around to try again — before the safe landing, 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.

This would have been the ultimate in pilot error, and might end the career of that pilot.


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  • Landing on a taxiway does happen; the most recent incident I could find occurred in 2006. While I lived in St. Petersburg an airline pilot commuting to work landed on a taxiway at Tampa International, hitting a plane and killing himself. My flight instructor always told me to trust the instruments; but you have to look outside occasionally.

  • Edward

    Interestingly, San Francisco’s SFO is the site of the previous airliner accident in the US, in 2013.

    I am not a pilot, and I do not know what it takes to mistake a taxiway for the runway, but the runways at SFO have all the appropriate lighting on their runways, including approach lighting, which makes runways even more distinctive than any other feature at an airport.

    Blair’s comment that the pilot may not have looked out the window makes sense, but I am confused as to why the landing systems failed to inform the pilot that the aircraft was not properly lined up with the runway.

    Is there something wrong with SFO, or were they just unlucky to have two inattentive flight crews in the past four years?

  • Garry

    Runways always have large 2-digit numbers painted on their ends, very visible from the air, indicating their orientation (for example, “27” means that the runway is running west, or, rounded to the nearest 10 degrees, 270 degrees). The air traffic controllers and pilots refer to these numbers when specifying the runway, as in “you are cleared to land on runway 27.”

    It sounds like the pilot failed to make this very basic check to confirm he was indeed approaching the correct runway.

  • Edward

    This occurred shortly before midnight. It was not a wrong runway that he was approaching, it was the taxiway with four planes full of passengers on it. There was almost a five-plane accident.

  • David

    Well, it’s pilot error in that he lined up on the wrong strip of concrete, but it’s also the pilot that saved things, the radio traffic has him noting lights on the runway and asking if it was really clear. The controller actually says “yes, it’s clear”, then another plane says “he’s over the taxiway” and the controller orders a go-around. But the pilot clearly did look out and see the hazard, no way was he going to actually land where he saw plane lights.

  • Joe

    I would think that the radio for the ILS would have been tuned to the runway in question, if that was the case, the pilots, both of them should have noticed the ILS was not tracking on their instruments, these pilots missed so many ques, the rabbit is a lighting system that gives verticle information for glide slope, runway lights are white, there are always threshold lights for runways like these, it’s almost easier in the dark to find the runway, taxiway lights are aviation blue, this just boggles the mind.

  • Garry

    Edward, I didn’t think the pilot chise the wrong runway; seeing numbers tells the pilot that what he’s seeing is a runway (and also matches his heading, for additional confirmation). I’m no aviator, but it seems to me that looking for the numbers at the end of the runway is a quick check that should be done 100 percent of the time.

    Joe points out some even more obvious cues the pilot should have noticed.

    David points out that the pilot saw the hazard, which is reassuring, but it seems he was just 1 mistake away from disaster. Disasters rarely happen for one cause; usually there are a cascade of errors that align in the worst possible way. It sounds like the cascade stopped just short of reaching critical mass in this case.

  • Joe

    This is what an approach to the runway in question looks like in good meteorological conditions, possible the pilot is color blind or had some sort of hypoxia.
    These kinds of approaches are standardized almost worldwide.

  • Edward

    Excellent video. It is a night landing onto the same runway as the Air Canada flight.

    It shows the approach lights that I think the Air Canada pilot should have noticed.

  • Joe

    Actually, the camera did this approach no justice, you can see this approach eight miles out if you are looking and lined up, 2 miles out and it’s pretty clear weather you are lined up for final or not, short final and the lights are in your face, two pilots missed this! Blair is onto something here.

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