Eleven seconds was the estimated difference between a recent near-miss at San Francisco International Airport and the possible deaths of nearly 1,000 passengers in what would have been one of the worst aviation disasters ever.
Apparently only a last-minute warning from an alert pilot on the ground prevented an Air Canada plane mistakenly landing on a taxiway where four fully fueled planes were awaiting permission for take-off.
How could this happen? There must be answers. There must be accountability. There must be changes.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. But so far, we’re getting more information from the Canadian government than our own.
Six days after the July 7 near-disaster, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada released the first official details. For the most part, they merely buttress what this news organization’s Matthias Gafni had already exclusively reported.
Air Canada Flight 759, coming from Toronto, was supposed to be on visual approach to Runway 29R. Instead, it was headed for Taxiway C.
At the front of the line on the ground was United Airlines Flight 1 with enough fuel for an 8,446-mile, nearly 16½-hour trip to Singapore, what the airline last year called the longest scheduled flight operated by any U.S. carrier.
Behind it were Philippine Airlines 115 to Manilla; United Airlines 863 to Sydney, Australia; and United Airlines 1118 to Orlando, Fla.
Three trans-Pacific and one cross-country flight queued up on the taxiway with no quick escape route and the Air Canada plane headed straight for them.
The Air Canada pilot radioed that he saw lights on the runway but the air traffic controller, who was also coordinating with another facility, radioed back that the runway was clear. Neither apparently realized that the pilot was mistakenly targeting the adjacent taxiway.
“Where’s this guy going! He’s on the taxiway,” interjects a crew member from a plane on the ground. The air traffic controller immediately instructs the Air Canada pilot to abort his landing. By one estimate, the plane was within 11 seconds of striking United Flight 1.
According to the Canadian safety board, the plane had flown over a quarter-mile of the taxiway before it pulled back up. It cleared the first two planes by about 100 feet, the third by 200 feet and the last one by 300 feet.
“Air Canada flew directly over us,” the pilot of United 1 told the tower moments later.
How did the Air Canada pilot mistake the blue lights of the taxiway for the white lights of the runway? Was the air traffic controller alone? What else was he doing and why did he not head off the near-collision sooner? And why did we learn about this from aviation enthusiasts rather than federal officials?
Air Canada isn’t providing details. Neither are the FAA or NTSB. They must reveal exactly what happened – and why.
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