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Photos Show How Close Air Canada Pilot Came to 'Greatest Aviation Disaster Ever'

At one point the plane was less than 100 feet from hitting a fully loaded plane on the tarmac.
Mack Lamoureux
Toronto, Canada
August 3, 2017, 3:21pm
Photos via NTSB

We now know just how close an Air Canada Airbus was to smashing into four fully loaded and fueled airplanes waiting on the tarmac of the San Francisco Airport.

Late on July 7th, an Air Canada Airbus with 149 passengers on board was flying into San Francisco from Toronto. Just before midnight, the plane coming in for a landing accidentally lined up with a taxiway rather than a runway beside it. On that taxiway sat four fully loaded planes waiting for further instruction.

On the descent, the pilot asked why he saw lights (the other planes) on the runway. Near this time, an exasperated United pilots on the taxiway chimed in to air traffic control asking what he was doing and said "he's on the taxiway. To further warn the Air Canada pilots, a Philippine Airlines switched on their landing lights in an attempt to signal to the pilot he was coming in on four planes.

At this point the Air Traffic Controller told the pilot to do a "go-around"—aborting the landing—which the plane did.

We now know, thanks to an investigation update from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), that the plane flew about a quarter of a mile over the taxiway during the near miss. During its attempted landing, the Airbus came within about 100 feet of the first two planes and within 59 feet of the ground before doing the "go-around." When the initial incident happened, Ross Aimer, a retired pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, told VICE that this was very close to being a horrific disaster.

""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."

In the update we also learned the airplane was so far off course it actually disappeared from the air traffic control's radar system for about 12 seconds. Furthermore, according to the NTSB, the pilots were immensely experienced with the main pilot having more than 20,000 hours in the air and over 4,700 behind the controls of an Airbus. The NTSB interviewed both Air Canada pilots who said they "did not recall seeing aircraft on taxiway C but that something did not look right to them."

The NTSB has not yet found the probable cause of the incident and are still investigating.

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