The Mercury News
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 appropriate runway.
Sitting on Taxiway C shortly before midnight were four fully loaded airplanes full of passengers and gas awaiting permission to take off, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating the “rare” incident. An air traffic controller sent the Air Canada Airbus 320 on a “go-around” — an unusual event where pilots must pull-up and circle around to try again — before landing safely, 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 it initiated a “go-around.”
“We are still investigating the circumstances and therefore have no additional information to offer,” he said.
The SFO spokesman referred inquiries to the FAA, saying the airport had no comment on the event.
The aircraft had been cleared to land on Runway 28R, which runs parallel with that taxiway, according to the FAA. The pilot was flying the plane manually on a clear night when he lined up wrong, the federal agency said.
“This is pretty huge. My buddies called and asked if I knew about it,” Aimer said. “They’re a sitting duck on the taxiway. They can’t go anywhere.”