Shocking Details Emerge About Last Week’s “Near Miss” At SFO

As I wrote about several days 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, so you can imagine how much fuel they had.

The Air Canada pilots were clearly very 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.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has released the initial findings regarding the incident, and it’s shocking/terrifying. Per the report, it is estimated that the plane overflew the first two planes on the taxiway by just 100 feet:

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.

That’s CRAZY. For reference, the A320 is ~123 feet long, so the A320 was less than a plane length from the plane on the taxiway.

Thank goodness the United pilot spoke up when he did. If it had been a second or two later, one can only wonder what might have happened.

Here’s a BBC News video recreating the incident:

Comments

  1. in 2017.. this is even possible? I’m in shock.

    I can support Trumps airline modernization plan. If he lasts long enough to implement it

  2. Isn’t this a case of pilot fatigue and flying into an unfamiliar airport more than anything else?

  3. It sounds really, really close and is very scary (especially since I was flying out of SFO that day — I don’t know what time this incident was), but from my read of the report, the distance was 100 vertical feet. That’s much different than being one plane length away (unless you put a plane on its nose) and then veering off to avoid a collision. Still a terrible, close call that is inexcusable, but no need to dramatize even more.

  4. Can we give a thumbs up in this case to United for avoiding a catastrophe? Lately we have been bashing them nonstop…

  5. I just reviewed flightaware and saw that my flight (AA18) was actually about to leave the gate (2 hours late) when the collision almost happened. We left the gate at 12:04am and it looks from flightaware logs like AC759 had the near miss at 11:54pm. The pilot did announce a slight delay on the taxiway before takeoff, which struck me as odd given the late hour – I wonder if it’s due to this incident.

  6. #fakenews

    From the report: “The closest lateral proximity between ACA759 and one of the four aircraft on
    Taxiway C was 29 feet”

    This is not flying OVER the planes. It’s flying NEXT to them.

  7. So just to clarify, this was 100% Air Canada’s fault as they were on course to land on the taxiway instead of the actual runway they were cleared to land on?

    Terrifying! I can’t understand how they waited that long to abort.

  8. Aren’t runway lights white and taxiway lights blue? Someone needs an eye test apart from anything else …….

  9. It’s shocking that both pilots confused the taxiway for the runway. Also, I’m no expert but shouldn’t the pilots rely on instruments to guide them to land (ILS)?

  10. Kent,

    Fatigue should not be a factor – flights from Canada (and Mexico) are the shortest and quickest flights of any international arrival at SFO. A Toronto flight is maybe 5 hours – some other flights are 10 or even 15 hours.

    Heck, there are domestic flights that take 5-6 hours.

  11. How can both AC pilots missed the color of the lights between Runway (White) and Taxiway (Blue)?

    Though same question could be asked about the accident SQ006 crashed into a construction concrete block at TPE on Oct 31 2000, killing 83 of the 179 on board. The crash was ruled 100% pilot error. Despite a very experienced captain, he and his crew made an astonishing number of errors in preparing the take off of the aircraft in a very poor weather condition (right before the arrival of a major typhoon.) . Despite correctly acknowledged the ATC instruction to take off on 05L, he turned into 05R which was closed down for construction and was with lined with different lights that should still be visible in the poor weather condition.

    In this latest AC near miss, the weather condition was fine, so no reason to confuse the lights of the runway with the taxiway.

    The ATC can only be blamed for not monitor the landing closely due to there is only one person on duty but the errors are the AC pilots.

  12. from AVHerald, runway 28L was closed that night and lights probably off. So the pilots likely mistook 28R for 28L and looked to the right for “28R”.

    http://avherald.com/h?comment=4ab79f58&opt=0

    likely they did not look at ILS either. Or it was out of service again like during the Asiana crash.

    Clever way to ensure your airport gets into the news, save a few dollars by switching off your ILS.

  13. Maybe this is a good time to cut ties with Canada. Once upon a time, US and Canada used to stand together but things have changed much since then.

  14. I was *murdered* for relaying this very information by the know-it-alls here. I was ridiculed for saying this was grotesque pilot incompetence.

    Now show me the receipts, smart@sses.

  15. @Jackie…really? You are either a troll, or a fairly ignorant person when it comes to US – CAN relations. 🙁

  16. SFO is becoming notorious with pilots for a system and runways that are better suited for Connies and the DC 6’s of long ago. I suggest reading the post and comments on this incident in AvHerald as many pilots comment there and explain how pilots can make this mistake. While yes, this was the error of the AC pilots lining up for a taxiway it is also the result of the very odd and close layout…also why IFR landings are not permitted and SFO is a mess of delays in poor weather. This place is major accident waiting to happen unless it is modernized. It doesn’t help that it is in location on the bay that is a mess of fog and low clouds during storms.

  17. @AA agreed! Thumbs up for this UA pilot! But thumbs down for AC pilots! Runway 28R right next to it, what’s going on?

  18. “in 2017.. this is even possible? I’m in shock.

    I can support Trumps airline modernization plan. If he lasts long enough to implement it”

    The Überlingen mid-air collision was a DIRECT result of privatized ATC, which is what Cheeto McSmallHands is advocating for. In a privatized ATC environment, it is entirely possible that this would have been worse. This was not, in any way, a failing of the US ATC system.

  19. Like trump cares about modernizing anything…his plan is likely to have all airports named after him…and then charge them for using his name.

  20. ATC system not at fault. HUGE thumbs up to PIC of UA 1. Even though go around was initiated @ 400 ft. the airplane will continue to descend as engines spool up so 100 ft. vertical separation very likely.
    This would have made TFN look like a backyard bonfire.
    The 28s are a set of two parallels and 28L was closed for maintenance and possibly AC mistook 28R for 28L and taxiway 6 for 28R? However lighting was different so…

  21. FYI the large Orange man with the small hands is not planning AIRLINE reform. He wants to privatise ATC which is what we have here in Canada. Our poor backward country now has a much better and modern ATC system than the US and it is ADS-B functional, a capability the FAA can only wish it has.

  22. Thanks for providing more detail on this, Lucky.
    Much appreciated!!
    Flew our of SFO int’l on July 3rd, and will fly into, and out of, SFO two more times in July …
    This sh*t is MORE than scary …
    The pure fact that it got THIS close is a disaster already!
    I hope this will be a LOUD wake-up call for everyone involved.
    Feeling real sorry for everyone on those planes .., Glad they made it thru this without bruises.
    GEEEZ !!!!!

  23. Anyone who knows anything about accidents, in the air transportation industry or otherwise, knows that simply to explain things away through ‘pilot error’ will likely end up missing the true cause of the incident. Where errors occur, they are usually a result of a problem somewhere in the ‘system’ as a whole. If you simply blame the human beings without fixing the problem, it is likely that the mistake will be repeated in the future. Read the work of Sidney Dekker and James Reason if you want to know more.

    A coulee of specific things… Martin, fatigue isn’t usually the result of one long flight operation. It is usually a cumulative phenomenon that builds up over days or even weeks. A person’s personal circumstances can also contribute to fatigue (new baby at home, material stress, etc), so it’s not just about work factors.

    It also strikes me as odd that when the AC pilot reported seeing lights on the runway, ACT just said the they were clear to land rather than investigating further, confirming line-up etc. Seems to me that through their assumption that AC was lined-up on the runway, they missed an earlier opportunity to correct the situation.

  24. The first two planes in line on that taxi way apparently were UA 787-9’s headed for SYD and SIN. Talk about a bunch of fuel. Can you imagine the follow on impact of UAs international flight schedule if two 787-9’s were suddenly gone?

  25. FLL,

    If you look at where the control tower is at SFO, then it would be really hard to visually determine that the AC plane was lined up wrong. There should instead be instrumentation that shows that.

    On the plane there is ILS but that isn’t always used in clear visibility and, moreover. it sometimes isn’t working at SFO either. (Was that not a factor in the Asiana crash a few years ago?)

    And I’m not sure that any technology in the control tower could have detected the mis-alignment. This has to be a pilot responsibility.

  26. Martin, I think your comment was a response to mine?

    My point is not about responsibility or whether it is possible to tell visually from the tower if the aircraft is lined up properly or not. My point is that when the pilot reported ‘lights in the runway’ the should have alerted ATC to a potential problem. Rather than just assuming that the pilot was wrong, they could have run some checks (other than looking out of the window to check the runway was clear) to make sure that everything was in order… ‘Air Canada, can we just confirm that you are actually lined up on 28R? Be advised that 28L is currently closed and lights off.’

    Now, I’m no ATC expert, so my words may not be the actual ones they would use, but I do know a lot about accidents (part of my job) and avoiding them. If a pilot says he sees lights on the runway, but the runway is clear, that should set alarm bells ringing.

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