SFO Near-Miss: Air Canada Jet Was 50 Feet Away From Disaster

Jul 17, 2017

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Update 8/4/17: The NTSB has released a pretty terrifying image that makes it clear just how close Flight 759 was to disaster:

The NTSB explains:

The incident pilots advanced the thrust levers when the airplane was about 85 feet above ground level. Flight data recorder data indicate the airplane was over the taxiway at this time. About 2.5 seconds after advancing the thrust levers, the minimum altitude recorded on the FDR was 59 feet above ground level.

Last week, we reported on a near-miss incident at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) involving an Air Canada A320. Flight 759, originating from Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), was cleared for landing on runway 28R, but instead lined up for a parallel taxiway. While this sounds vaguely familiar (think Harrison Ford’s taxiway landing earlier this year), the SFO incident could have been far worse: There were four other airliners — two United 787-9s, a Philippine Airlines A340-300, and a United 737-900 — full of fuel and passengers — waiting to take off.

The Air Canada A320 jet lined up for taxiway C, which runs parallel to its intended runway 28R

The Transportation Safety Board Of Canada (TSB) has released its initial findings regarding this incident, detailing how shockingly close the Canadian jet (ACA759) got to the taxiway:

“It is estimated that ACA759 overflew the first two aircraft by 100 feet, the third one by 200 feet and the last one by 300 feet. The closest lateral proximity between ACA759 and one of the four aircraft on Taxiway C was 29 feet.”

As a point of comparison, the height of a Boeing 787 — one of the four aircraft on the taxiway at the time of the incident — is 56 feet, which means the Air Canada jet was less than 50 feet away from disaster. A BBC news video best illustrates this:

Air Canada collision avoided 'by 30m'

"Where's this guy going?"Audio reveals the moment a plane narrowly avoided disaster in San Francisco. http://bbc.in/2v3nLMx

Posted by BBC News on Saturday, July 15, 2017

Since the incident, many aviation experts have weighed in on this incident, offering possible explanations to how a modern day jetliner, equipped with sophisticated technology that assists pilots in landing, can completely miss the runway. To Delta’s former chief pilot, Alan Price, this was “a clear crew error with many facets.”

Airfield lighting was also at the center of discussion, with experts explaining that the different colored lights — runways have white lights while taxiways have blue and green lights — should have been clear indication to the pilots that they were heading for a taxiway instead. However, the Federal Aviation Administration stated that at the time of the incident, runway 28L, a parallel runway to the left of runway 28R, was closed with its lights dark. The Air Canada pilots, flying a visual approach, could have mistaken the lights at runway 28R for 28L’s, and used that as a visual reference to guide it towards what they assumed was their intended runway.

SFO 28R approach
This is the pilot’s view of a runway 28R approach at the time of the incident. Notice the runway lights at runway 28L are off, which may have misled the Air Canada pilots. Image courtesy of user FrankCanada97 from NeoGAF.

It is also unclear if the Instrument Landing System (ILS) was operated during the approach. As Ryan Jorgenson, senior aviation data analyst with FlightAware, explains, not every airline will have to operate it during a visual approach in good weather. If in use, however, it would have made it pretty clear to the pilots that they were veering off course.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating this incident, and it should have a preliminary report ready in the next few months.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

H/T: One Mile At a Time

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