Catastrophe Narrowly Avoided For Air Canada A320 At SFO

Filed Under: Air Canada

Aviation is incredibly safe — arguably commercial flying is the safest way to travel — but that doesn’t mean things always go as planned. For every disaster there are a countless number of situations where disaster is narrowly avoided.

This past Friday night just minutes before midnight, an Air Canada A320 was approaching San Francisco Airport (SFO). The flight was coming from Toronto, and was carrying 140 passengers and crew. The plane was on final approach to runway 28R with good visibility when the following happened, per The Aviation Herald:

A short time after reading back the landing clearance the crew queried tower to confirm they were cleared to land advising they were seeing lights on the runway, tower advised the runway was clear and they were cleared to land indeed. Another voice chimed in calling they were lined up with the taxiway, tower immediately instructed AC-759 to go around as result commenting it looked like they were lined up for taxiway C. The aircraft went around from about 400 feet MSL. Other flight crew taxiing their aircraft on taxiway C commented the A320 was flying straight over them. The A320 positioned for another approach and landed safely about 15 minutes later.

Here’s the audio of the incident, which really puts the incident into perspective:

There were four planes awaiting takeoff on the taxiway that the A320 was about to land on. The Air Canada pilot tried to clarify with ATC that the runway was clear, because he saw lights. Little did the tower know that he was referring to the taxiway and not the runway. That was when the United pilot chimed in and said “where’s this guy going? He’s on the taxiway!” Then ATC instructed the Air Canada flight to go around. It landed 15 minutes later without incident.

For a bit of context, here’s a video of a nighttime landing on runway 28R at SFO. The green lights off to the right are that of the taxiway that the pilots were supposedly lined up to land on.

This is obviously a very serious incident that could have ended very differently. No one can really say for sure what would have happened if the United pilot hadn’t told ATC what he saw. The go around happened at just a few hundred feet, so this was all very close to landing.

This isn’t the first time that a plane has almost landed on a taxiway rather than a runway, though fortunately every time that has happened there weren’t planes on the taxiway, so this would have been a much more serious situation. When this has happened in the past, it has almost always been during the day. The thing is, at night runway lights look very different than taxiway lights, so it should be easier to distinguish the two.

However, I imagine we’re talking about two very experienced pilots with thousands of hours here, so it’s easy for me to sit behind my keyboard and say that. They were coming from Toronto so it was approaching 3AM “their time,” so it’s possible fatigue played an issue, that their eyes were failing them a bit, etc.

Regardless, this is a scary incident, and it’s now being investigated by the FAA.

(Tip of the hat to

  1. SFO approach does seem to be a little bit unsafe. The Asiana mayday episode mentioned that ILS is frequently out of service requiring pilots to use visual approach. And this in such a big airport…

  2. @Mike, @Andrew B. – That was my first reaction also. Harrison Ford has cemented his legacy as the king of the taxiway landing 🙂

  3. You decided against “United FORCES travel-weary Canadians to abort landing, wait for 15 mins.” as the title?

  4. UA1’s comment about AC flying over them in the go around isn’t indicative of AC lining up with taxiway C. They were assigned a heading in the go around and without knowing the winds aloft at the time it’s possible that the 280 heading combined with wind drift would push them towards the taxiway.

  5. @Jay 🙂 yes, perhaps united may have known about the united breaks guitars guy being on this flight and wanted to reaccomodate him to a landing time after the hotel shuttle stops for the evening.

  6. @Chris K Let me clarify something: a visual approach is no less safe than an instrument approach (ILS, LOC, RNAV, etc). At SFO, when VMC (visual meteorological conditions) prevails, visual approaches are almost always in use unless otherwise requested by the pilot. In fact, SFO has published visual approaches for 28L/R, which is more than many airports have. It is more of a problem if the pilots could NOT fly a visual approach, as it shows how some pilots are relying too much on automation, like Asiana 214.
    Approach chart

  7. Thanks to the fifth commenter for also making the retarded Harrison Ford joke.

    For those of us actually flying in and out of SFO, this is serious business. I cannot for the life of me understand how the foreign pilot on AC could mistake the runway for the taxiway – with four a/c lined up, he could have killed thousands of people.

    Is this one of those situations when you ban Air Canada from landing at SFO until it has been figured out why he was about to kill so many people? I think so.

  8. Hi Lucky,

    So funny that I’m an avid reader of your blog and the youtube video you’ve linked to here was mine.

    Take care (and congrats to you and Ford on your engagement).


  9. @William Y

    Or ban all flights until we figure out why the third world ATC at SFO had no clue where the plane was.

    Or, even better, wait for the investigation report.

  10. @Yultide –

    If you are 90 feet vertically apart from aircraft on a taxiway, you’re dangerously underqualified to fly a plane.

    He should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – in America.

  11. @Lucky, I think you left out the most important part of the story: the 4 planes that were on the taxiway were international flights, including some 747’s. So while there have been near misses before, this near miss almost ended up being the worst air disaster of all time. Think over 1000 dead, maybe more. Truly frightening.

  12. Lets assume he was lined up for 28R ( why wouldn’t he be?). He queries lights on the runway, Tower says, in effect, there is no aircraft on it and you are clear to land 28R. Another pilot calls out where is he going (based on what, a slant view?) and as a result Tower tells AC to go around. In the process of which he overflies the nearby taxiway, which sounds highly likely when you overshoot so low and so close to touchdown.

  13. @William Y.
    And this would help how? Would a prosecution ‘to the fullest extent’ lead to other pilots thinking “oh wait, that Air Canada dude got his ass handed to him in court, I better not accidentally kill everyone including myself in this plane now” or what is supposed to be the benefit?

    Fortunately, the aviation industry mostly eliminated the blame-and-shame culture you seem to prefer in favor of a much more constructive, helpful and forward looking error management. So let’s wait for the investigation report, see how and why exactly this happened and how it can be prevented in the future. This approach is the reason commercial aviation is so safe today.

  14. @Rhys
    Maybe my term “visual approach” was not entirely correct.

    Let’s say non-ILS approach is less safe than one guided by ILS. This is because non-ILS approach increases the probability of pilot error, leading to a higher risk of controlled flight into terrain accidents.

    My guess is that 30 percent of all accidents featured in mayday episodes happened when pilots tried to land on a runway or runway direction without ILS or with the existing ILS switched off or out of order.

  15. @PeterG:

    >Lets assume he was lined up for 28R ( why wouldn’t he be?)

    Yeah, let’s not. Since the real pilots on the ground actually said he was not. He missed them by 100 ft. vertical, for f€cks sake.

    Why do you people have this insane need to defend the foreign pilot’s right to kill 1000+ Americans? Do you think it’ll somehow stick it to President Trump or what?

  16. Couldn’t agree more with William Y. I would say the best course of action to protect American lives, would be a total ban on all foreign airlines from landing anywhere on US soil altogether. Who’s with me?


  17. I actually reached out to United via email and told them that they need to find and commend the pilot of UAL 1 who probably saved 1000 lives that night – I got a very nice email response – here it is –

    Dear Mr. XXXXX:

    Thank you for sharing this link. I read the story and listened to the recording.

    I’ll forward your comments to the Pilot’s supervisor and senior management, so he can be recognized. It was very kind of you to take the time to write.

    Thank you for your business and 1 Million Miler Premier Gold MileagePlus loyalty. We look forward to serving you on your next United flight.


    Dayna Winters
    Corporate Customer Care
    Case ID: 12483585

  18. As a 30 year corporate pilot operating thru SFO for many years .. it’s not uncommon for mistakes to happen and corrected before they become accidents. If we can learn from this situation is that both flight crews from air Canada and united spoke up when they noticed something wrong and saved the day. If air Canada did not query ATC when he saw lights on “what he thought was runway” this gave the united crew the clue they neeed to speak up and save the day, or this would have turned out much worse. Never be afraid to question anything in the world we live in today. In my profession opinion, even though the air Canada crew made the initial mistake they also communicated to ATC before it was to late ….and United crew was smart enough to catch it. This is a what professional pilots and ATC train for all our lives.

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