Close Call at San Francisco Airport was Closer than Anyone Thought

Airbus descended below 100 feet above the ground before beginning a go around.

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An Air Canada A320 almost landed on a taxiway full of aircraft at San Francisco International Airport.NTSB/YouTube

Thousands of people read reports of last July’s near collision on the ground at San Francisco International Airport when an Air Canada flight nearly landed on a taxiway. Until the NTSB last week opened the docket of information related to the incident, almost no one realized just how close all the aircraft involved came to being part of a major ground collision.

Air traffic around SFO was reportedly busy on the night of July 7, 2017 when an Air Canada Airbus A320 on the Bridge Visual Approach lined up on SFO's Taxiway Charlie (just right of the active runway as the pilot would see it) during its approach, rather than to Runway 28 Right. Runway 28 Left was also closed for construction.

The nighttime visual eventually ended with the Airbus making a missed approach, but only after some pilots in aircraft on the taxiway queried the tower. Some of those aircraft on the taxiway turned on their landing lights to try and catch the attention of the two Airbus pilots. What was not known until recently was that the aircraft descended below 100 feet above the ground before beginning the climb back to traffic pattern altitude. Although normal Air Canada procedures would have called for the crew to tune in the Runway 28 Right localizer as a navigational backup during this visual approach, the crew forgot that night.

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One mile on final.NTSB

The captain, the flying pilot told the NTSB he became confused about which runway was which during the final few minutes of the approach although the crew did not ask SFO tower for any assistance other than to confirm the runway was clear. The first officer said that call was generated after both pilots wondered about a line of stationary lights they saw across the runway. The captain said something didn't feel right during the final moments and that he elected to go around. A security cam video that captured the approach to the taxiway shows how close the Airbus came to the aircraft sitting on the taxiway.

During the NTSB’s interview with the tower controller on duty at the time of the incident, that controller said he did not realize the Airbus was lined up for the taxiway rather than the runway. It is unclear whether the tower controller’s workload with both the tower and the ground control positions combined had anything to do with the incident. Controllers operating positions combined during periods of busy traffic at SFO was banned by the FAA after this incident.