A private jet trying to land at San Diego Airport came within 100 feet of the runway where a Southwest Boeing 737 was waiting to take off. What went wrong here?
Close call at San Diego Airport due to distracted ATC
This incident happened on Friday, August 11, 2023, at San Diego International Airport (SAN). It involves a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 with the registration code N7734H that was scheduled to fly to San Jose, and a Cessna Citation 560X with the registration code N564HV that was scheduled to arrive in San Diego.
Long story short, the Southwest Boeing 737 was on the runway waiting to take off, while the Cessna Citation had been cleared to land on the same runway. The Cessna Citation was just 100 feet off the ground when a go around was executed, as the Southwest Boeing 737 hadn’t yet been cleared for takeoff.
The best way to understand the incident is to watch the below VASAviation video, which contains both the air traffic control audio, and a recreation of the movement of the aircraft.
To summarize what happened:
- The air traffic controller cleared the Cessna Citation to land on runway 27
- The Southwest Boeing 737 was cleared to line up and wait on runway 27, with a warning that the Cessna Citation was on a five mile final
- The air traffic controller seemingly focused on things that shouldn’t have been top priority, like issuing other aircraft route amendments
- You can hear the pilot of the Cessna Citation on final approach try to verify that they still had landing clearance, but they got cut off by a transmission from the air traffic controller
- Finally as the Cessna Citation was about to touch down, the air traffic controller told them to go around and fly a missed approach
- At this point the Southwest Boeing 737 was also advised to clear the runway, because there was another aircraft on two mile final
The Southwest Boeing 737 departed within 15 minutes, and the Cessna Citation also managed to land again within 15 minutes, after performing a go around.
The NTSB is now investigating this incident:
“NTSB investigating Aug. 11 runway incursion and overflight at San Diego Int’l Airport that occurred when a Cessna 560X was cleared to land on Runway 27 and conflicted with a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 which was in a line up & wait on Runway 27. No injuries or damage reported.”
My take on this San Diego Airport incident
Air traffic controllers have really stressful jobs, and they have a lot of things they have to manage at once. A mistake from an air traffic controller could have catastrophic implications.
With that in mind, this air traffic controller obviously screwed up. She cleared an aircraft to land, and cleared an aircraft to taxi into position and hold on the same runway, and then seemingly got distracted by other aircraft with less critical needs.
You can even hear the Cessna Citation pilot trying to confirm that they still have clearance to land, but that transmission is mostly blocked by the air traffic controller giving another pilot instructions.
Fortunately I think this situation was a little further away from being a catastrophe than some other incidents we’ve seen recently:
- This was during the daytime, and visibility was good, so the Cessna Citation pilots presumably saw the Southwest Boeing 737 on the runway
- The one thing I’m confused about is why the Cessna Citation pilots continued their approach until seconds before they were supposed to land, when they could presumably see the plane on the runway; it seems like waiting until you’re within 100 feet of the runway to execute a go around when a plane is on the runway and hasn’t been cleared for takeoff is a bit late
I think it’s also worth mentioning that in many other parts of the world, air traffic controllers only clear planes to land once the runway is free, rather than the conditional clearance we see in the United States. I’ve always thought the former system makes more sense. If you ask me, pilots should be cleared to land when… they’re actually cleared to land.
A departing Southwest Boeing 737 and arriving Cessna Citation were uncomfortably close on runway 27 at San Diego Airport. The air traffic controller had cleared the Cessna Citation to land and had also cleared the Southwest 737 to taxi onto the runway, without permission to take off.
Fortunately this situation had an okay ending, but this has to be one of the bigger mistakes we’ve seen from an air traffic controller, as she seemingly lost focus.
What do you make of this San Diego Airport ATC incident?