SAN FRANCISCO — In what one aviation expert called a near-miss of what could have been the largest aviation disaster ever, an Air Canada pilot on Friday narrowly avoided a tragic mistake: landing on the San Francisco International Airport taxiway instead of the runway.
Sitting on Taxiway C shortly before midnight were four airplanes full of passengers and fuel awaiting permission to take off, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the “rare” incident. An air traffic controller sent the descending Air Canada Airbus 320 on a “go-around” — an unusual event where pilots must pull up and circle around to try again — before the safe landing, according to the federal agency.
FAA investigators are still trying to determine how close the Air Canada aircraft came to landing and potentially crashing into the four aircraft below, but the apparent pilot error already has the aviation industry buzzing.
“If it is true, what happened probably came close to the greatest aviation disaster in history,” said retired United Airlines Capt. Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. He said he’s been contacted by pilots from across the country about the incident.
“If you could imagine an Airbus colliding with four passenger aircraft wide bodies, full of fuel and passengers, then you can imagine how horrific this could have been,” he said.
Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman, said Flight AC759 from Toronto “landed normally without incident” after the go-around.
The aircraft had been cleared to land on Runway 28R, which runs parallel to that taxiway, according to the FAA. The pilot, flying the plane manually on a clear night, lined up wrong, the federal agency said.
Audio from the air traffic controller communication — archived by a user on LiveATC.net and reviewed by this news organization — recorded the confused Air Canada pilot asking if he’s clear to land on 28R because he sees airplane lights on the runway.
“There’s no one on 28R but you,” the air controller responds.
An unidentified voice, presumably another pilot, then chimes in: “Where’s this guy going? He’s on the taxiway.”
The air controller quickly tells the Air Canada pilot to go around, and adds, “It looks like you were lined up for Charlie (Taxiway C) there.”
A United Airlines pilot radios in: “United One, Air Canada flew directly over us.”
“Yeah, I saw that, guys,” the control tower responds.
The event has launched a discussion among airline circles, Aimer said.
“This is pretty huge. My buddies called and asked if I knew about it,” the former pilot said. “They’re a sitting duck on the taxiway. They can’t go anywhere.”