Air Canada Flight AC759 landed at San Francisco International Airport shortly after midnight on Saturday, July 8, approximately 54 minutes late on its journey from Toronto. While the passengers may have been a little irritated by the tardiness, they probably didn’t know at the time just how close they came to being involved in an accident that one former airline pilot told the Mercury News could have been “the greatest aviation disaster in history.”
The Airbus 320 had been cleared for landing on SFO’s Runway 28R, but the pilot instead lined the aircraft up with Taxiway C and began the descent. Waiting on Charlie were four airplanes, loaded with passengers and fuel. In his communication with the control tower — archived by LiveATC — the Air Canada pilot asked for confirmation that he was cleared for 28R, because he spotted “some lights on the runway.”
“759 confirmed clear to land runway 2-8 right,” the controller replied, “there is no one on 2-8 right but you.” At that point, another voice joined the conversation, asking: “Where’s this guy going? He’s on the taxiway!”
Fortunately, the controller ordered a go-around and the pilot corrected his mistake. Moments later, an alarmed United Airlines pilot also radioed the tower: “Air Canada flew directly over us.”
As Aero Consulting Experts CEO and retired United Airlines Capt. Ross Aimer told the Mercury News, the other planes on the taxiway were “sitting ducks” because of their inability to react quickly enough in the case that AC759 actually landed on the taxiway. The FAA is currently investigating the incident to see why the pilot was mistaken, as well as how close he actually came to causing an unimaginable accident.
In an interview with CBC, former airline pilot and accident investigator Capt. John Cox explained that he believes the investigation into this “very rare” event will focus on why the plane wasn’t following its instrument landing system.