As I first wrote about a week ago, 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 with 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, because 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.
One thing we didn’t exactly know shortly after the incident is how close the planes actually got to one another. We had heard that the plane initiated its go around at roughly 400 feet, so it was my assumption that this was as close as the planes got to one another. That’s close, but as it turns out, this was a much closer call than that.
A couple of days ago I wrote about how the NTSB estimated that the plane overflew the first two planes on the taxiway by just 100 feet. Well, there are even more details now, just when I thought this couldn’t have been any closer of a call. The East Bay Times has some even more alarming data on the incident:
New data obtained exclusively by this news organization add to the picture, showing that the Air Canada plane was just flying over a second fully loaded Philippine Airlines jet at 106 feet in the air — still continuing its descent — when an SFO air traffic controller finally warned him to abort his landing. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said in its initial report that the Air Canada pilot did not begin his “go-around” until the air traffic controller told the pilot to pull up. It took a flight crew member from a jet on the taxiway to alert both the pilot and air traffic controller over the radio of the wayward Airbus 320.
Once past the second plane, the Air Canada jet continued to drop to as low as 81 feet before it began to climb, as aviation experts say such a late aborted landing takes a moment to stop the jet’s inertia and begin to ascend.
At the Air Canada flight’s lowest point of 81 feet — and headed straight for the third plane on the ground, United Airlines flight 863 — it was only 26 feet above the top of that airplane’s tail. A Boeing 787 is 55 feet tall.
The tail height of an A340 (which is what the Philippine Airlines plane was) is 57 feet, meaning that if this data is true, AC759 was less than 50 feet above the A340. From there it descended even further, to the point that it was 81 feet off the ground as it was headed straight for a fully loaded 787.
Here’s an excellent recreation of the situation, which frankly gives me chills (my apologies that this seems to be a video player with annoying ads, but it’s the best recreation I’ve seen):
So, what’s the likely cause here? Obviously the NTSB is doing a full investigation, and I’m sure we’ll have a lot more information soon. One potential factor is that there were two parallel runways, 28L and 28R, and AC759 were supposed to land on runway 28R. However, runway 28L was closed for the night, with the lights off.
So it’s possible that they mistook runway 28R for runway 28L, and mistook the taxiway to the right of the runway for runway 28R. In other words, they saw two parallel sets of lights, and (incorrectly) assumed that the set of lights on the right was runway 28R.
The issue is that runway lights and taxiway lights are completely different colors, so how could two experienced pilots make that mistake? I’m sure we’ll find out soon, but keep in mind that these pilots were coming from Toronto, and the plane was landing minutes before midnight Pacific Time, so it was 3AM for them. I imagine they were exhausted. We don’t know whether or not that’s directly related, but it certainly could be.
What a situation. Every time I think that this couldn’t possibly get closer, more details emerge.
The pilot who spoke up and asked what the pilots of AC759 were doing deserves some sort of a medal. One could only imagine could have happened if he hadn’t spoken up.