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 airliners.net)