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)