Ouch: An Air Canada A320 Had An Incident At SFO… Again!

Filed Under: Air Canada

On Friday, July 7, 2017, an Air Canada flight had an incident at SFO. The A320 was flying from Toronto to San Francisco, and accidentally lined up to land on the taxiway instead of the runway. To make matters worse, there were four planes on the taxiway that were waiting to take off (a United 787 headed to Singapore, a Philippine Airlines A340 headed to Manila, a United 787 headed to Sydney, and a United 737 headed to Orlando), so you can imagine how much fuel they had.

The Air Canada pilots were clearly confused. On final approach they asked air traffic control to confirm that the runway was clear, because they saw lights on it. Air traffic control confirmed the runway was clear. The Air Canada plane only realized it was about to land on the taxiway when the pilots of one of the planes waiting for takeoff told ATC what was going on. Days after the event we found out that the planes were less than 50 feet apart.

Fortunately this incident ended well and SFO made some changes as a result of it to prevent something similar from happening in the future, though this was just seconds away from being one of the most catastrophic aviation incidents in history.

While not quite as severe, the FAA is now investigating another incident involving an Air Canada A320 at SFO. Yep, that’s the same type of plane at the same airport, just a few months later.

This incident happened on October 22, on Air Canada 781 from Montreal to San Francisco. The A320 was on final approach and was given landing clearance, but was then advised by the controller six times to go around, without response.

This was apparently because the tower wasn’t sure whether another plane had vacated the runway yet or not, so as a precaution they wanted the Air Canada A320 to go around. However, the pilots of the Air Canada plane never responded, and continued with their landing.

Not only that, but air traffic controllers tried to use a flashing light gun to get the pilots to abort their landing, which is apparently a standard protocol, but they weren’t responsive to that either. Per Mercury News:

As the plane got closer to landing, a tower supervisor used a red light gun to alert the crew to abort the landing. A flashing light gun is “standard protocol” when an air crew is not responding to radio instructions, Gregor said.

However, despite all those efforts from the tower, the Air Canada plane still landed on Runway 28R at 9:26 p.m., Gregor said. Fortunately, radar showed after the fact that the plane the tower had feared was still on the runway had actually cleared the area.

Once on the ground, the Air Canada plane advised air traffic control that they were having problems with the radio, and the controller responded with “that’s pretty evident.”

The incident is being investigated. We’ll have to wait for the investigation to see if there was an actual problem with the radio, if the pilots were just dialed into the wrong frequency, or what. It may have been pilot error, or it may not have been. Perhaps the concerning part here is that they didn’t abort the landing based on the use of the red light gun.

Regardless, it’s a serious situation when an air traffic controller tells a plane to go around six times in such a critical phase of flight, and that’s not acknowledged. This could have been a serious incident, though fortunately the plane that the controller was concerned about had in fact vacated the runway.

Here’s air traffic control audio for the incident (the good stuff starts 2:15 in):

(Tip of the hat to Woodrow)

  1. @ Thomas — Yep, unfortunately I don’t have a picture of an Air Canada A320, so this is as close as it’ll get.

  2. “Yep, that’s the same plane at the same airport”

    Same plane (tail number?), or same type of plane(320)? I’m guessing just another 320, but if it really is the same exact plane, that’s too crazy.

  3. Should have done my research. The AC759 tail number is C-FKCK. That plane was (safely) flying in Western Canada.

  4. My heart was racing listening to that, imagining what that air traffic controller must’ve been going through!

    What is the standard procedure for pilots when they know their radio isn’t working? Surely it isn’t to continue landing and hope for the best? Or did they have the visual assurance that the runway was clear to continue?

  5. @emily

    They might not have known the radio wasn’t working until they went to use it when they were already on the ground.

    The big mistake is not noticing the flashing red light, since that is literally the backup for any problem that prevent the tower from speaking to the plane.

  6. Procedure when the radio fails is to squawk 7600 on your transponder. That will let ATC know that you can’t communicate. Light gun signals are used to communicate from the tower to the aircraft.

    Steady Green – Green signal lights always indicate a GO. This means the aircraft is cleared to land.

    Flashing Green – The flashing green light signal to an aircraft in flight means the aircraft should return for landing and is essentially a Go-Around command. The aircraft do not have a clearance to land, so the aircraft must return for landing via Go-Around.

    Steady Red – Red light signals always indicate a stop command. However, an aircraft in flight is impossible to stop. So red light signal for an aircraft in flight means, the aircraft must continue circling and give way to other aircrafts until the air traffic controller indicates that you are cleared to land by giving a steady green light.

    Flashing Red – A Flashing Red light signal to an aircraft in flight indicates danger, the airport is unsafe and do not land.

    Alternating Red/Green –Alternating Red/Green light signal applies to both aircraft on the ground and in flight. It indicates the aircraft pilot to exercise extreme caution.

  7. This is not news. As neither was the near miss previously. They didn’t crash. So life goes on. No need to even report this.

  8. Well, it was news enough for Justin H. Benjaminfranklin to read the whole article, scroll down to the end of the comments, and post one of his own.

  9. @justinH is obviously leading a charmed life and has no worries in life what so ever. Never mind that the July incident almost led to what probably could have been the worst air disaster in US history. Or maybe he’s just a clueless moron?

  10. @ Nate: Maybe other people’s biggest pet peeve has to do with poor grammar (i.e. “What the picture of the A321 doing there?”). Kind of annoying when people point out things like that on a travel blog, isn’t it?
    He already noted why he didn’t post an A320 picture, and even if he hadn’t, the complaining is pointless because it doesn’t contribute to the conversation in any positive way.

  11. Pure speculation but AC781 may have already changed frequencies to ground traffic control before it was time. That would explain the sudden “radio problem” and its magical fix.

  12. @schar, because two pilots from Air Canada have made mistakes recently, the flying community shouldn’t fly SFO? That’s a leap.

  13. Yep, what’s up with these AC pilots? Perhaps the FAA should pull AC’s landing licence in the US until it is assured that both pilots and planes are properly responsive. That should get a quick response from mgmt. Heaven knows what these guys get away with at non-US airports.

  14. @Lucky I have a no accident no report policy. Yes that previous near miss in SFO could have been catastrophic but then again nowadays we’re seeing passengers deplane from planes being scorched on the tarmac and still surviving.

    example : Uberlingen mid-air collision = news
    Japan Airlines 907 near miss = not news

  15. Mr. Justin H. Benjaminfranklin – a near miss, though it is a popular phrase, and understood by many people, is a misnomer. What is actually meant is a near collision.

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