A “potentially catastrophic” aviation disaster was narrowly averted Friday, July 7, when an Air Canada flight started to descend onto a taxiway at San Francisco International Airport where four passenger jets were waiting to take off.
Air Canada Flight A759, arriving at SFO from Toronto, was cleared to land just before midnight on runway 28R, which runs parallel to the taxiway where planes line up to enter the runway for takeoff, the Mercury News reported.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials continue to investigate why the Air Canada pilots confused the strips and mistakenly set a course to land on the taxiway.
In audio exchanges between the ground and air, the Air Canada pilot asked traffic control if he was cleared to land on 28R after observing airplane lights on that runway.
“There’s no one on 28R but you,” the air traffic controller replied.
Other voices, presumably pilots of the other planes awaiting takeoff, are also heard on the audio.
“Where’s this guy going? He’s on the taxiway,” one unidentified voice said. “United One, Air Canada flew directly over us,” another pilot on the taxiway said. The FAA hasn’t disclosed how far overhead the airplane was at the time.
Air traffic controllers then directed the Air Canada Flight to abort the landing and try again. “It looks like you were lined up for Charlie (Taxiway C) there,” the air traffic controller said after redirecting the Air Canada pilot.
Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman, said Flight AC759 from Toronto “landed normally without incident” on the second attempt, adding that the airline is also investigating what happened.
“If it is true, what happened probably came close to the greatest aviation disaster in history,” retired United Airlines Captain Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, told the Mercury News while discussing the Friday 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.