An Air Canada pilot narrowly avoided a major catastrophe on Friday after almost slamming a landing Airbus 320 into four fully loaded passenger planes.
As first reported by The Mercury News, a Air Canada pilot came dangerously close to landing on a crowded taxiway, not the runway at San Francisco International Airport. The incident occurred on Friday night—you can listen to the audio from Live ATC of the exasperated air traffic controllers—and took just a minute to go from possibly disastrous to benign.
The pilot, coming in for landing while looking at the taxiway and not his scheduled runway, initially asks why he sees plane lights on the runway he was supposed to land on. The reason was because he was seeing plane lights—on the taxiway sat four planes, full of passengers and fuel, awaiting takeoff. The control tower told the pilot that his runway was clear when another voice—possibly a United pilot—chimes in asking what the Air Canada pilot was doing. The controller, realizing what was going on, told the pilot to conduct a "go-around"—meaning abort the landing—which he did.
Ross Aimer, a retired pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, told The Mercury News that this situation could have been horrible, a sentiment he reiterated in an interview with VICE.
"As a guy who has been in situations like this for the last fifteen years, this was extremely close for comfort," Aimer told VICE. "Had the United pilot not spoken when he did, this could have been, possibly, the greatest, most horrific disaster in aviation history."
"The worst one in history was the Tenerife disaster where 600 or so people perished when two 747 crashed into each other. This would have been far worse that that in my opinion."
When pulling up the plane got close enough for one of the sitting United pilots to notice and call it into the control tower, saying "United One, Air Canada flew directly over us." After completing the go-around, which entails circling the airport again, the pilot landed safely on the runway parallel to the taxiway.
Air Canada is staying relatively quiet on the near incident.
"Air Canada flight AC759 from Toronto was preparing to land at San Francisco airport Friday night when the aircraft initiated a go-around," Air Canada said in a statement to VICE. "The aircraft landed normally without incident."
Another retired pilot, John Cox, told CBC News that the reason disaster was averted was that everyone, from the pilot to the air traffic controller, followed the proper protocols. Aimer told VICE that he believed the turning point in the situation was when the United pilot chimed in asking what was going on.
"We have a saying in aviation that 'if you see something that you don't like, say something,'" said Aimer. "I'm very proud of my United buddies who didn't wait [to say something] when they saw that light coming at them."
Regardless of outcome, the situation is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration. In their statement, Air Canada added that they are also currently "investigating the circumstances."
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