NTSB Faults Air Canada Pilots for Last Year's Near-Disaster at SFO

1 min
In the upper-left third of this image, taken from an SFO security camera, the Air Canada jet's landing lights sweep across the fuselage of an aircraft on the taxiway just below it, just as the Air Canada jet pulls up. The NTSB now estimates the near-miss was a matter of just 10 to 20 feet. (NTSB/YouTube)

Federal safety officials blame two Air Canada pilots for coming within just 10 to 20 feet of crashing their jetliner into a plane on the ground last year at San Francisco International Airport. Previous estimates put the near-miss at within 100 feet.

The Air Canada pilots were apparently confused because one of two parallel runways was closed and dark before the late-night incident on July 7, 2017. The crew was seconds from landing their Airbus A320 jet on a taxiway where other planes loaded with passengers were waiting to take off.

"We could not have gotten literally or figuratively any closer to having a major disaster," said the National Transportation Safety Board's vice chairman, Bruce Landsberg, during a hearing Tuesday in Washington.

Underscoring the severity of the incident, the NTSB's top aviation safety staffer, John DeLisi, said it was the first time the board considered a major investigation for an event in which there were no injuries or damaged planes.

The board said the Air Canada crew mistook the taxiway for a runway because they didn't adequately review a warning to all pilots about one of the runways being closed for construction. The board cited other mistakes and crew fatigue as contributing factors.

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Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline would review the safety board's recommendations and has already taken steps to improve training and procedures.

The two pilots "are being held out of service," he said.

The safety board recommended the development of technology to warn pilots and air traffic controllers when a landing plane appears to be aimed at a taxiway instead of a runway. It also said the Federal Aviation Administration should consider better lighting and markings to warn pilots about closed runways.

The cockpit voice recorder might have helped investigators better understand how the near-accident unfolded. However, the recording was taped over because the NTSB wasn't notified of the incident for nearly two days.

"When we learned of a passenger airliner almost touching down on a taxiway occupied by four other airliners, we elected to launch a full investigation," DeLisi said.

SFO Ground Video Shows Near-Miss

In the video above, the Air Canada jet approaching SFO can be seen as the moving bright white light near the top of the frame. At the 1:08 minute mark, the jet's landing lights sweep across the fuselage of an aircraft just beneath it, lined up to take off.

The incident occurred just before midnight — it felt like 3 a.m. to the pilots, who had taken off from Toronto. The safety board recommended that Canada strengthen rules to prevent pilot fatigue.

The safety board's chairman, Robert Sumwalt, urged the FAA and Canadian officials to adopt the recommendations "so that we do not have to relearn the lessons of this incident at a far greater cost."

The Air Canada crew was cleared to land on runway 28R, to the right of the closed runway, 28L.

According to a preliminary NTSB report, the pilots thought the lighted runway was 28L — not theirs. Despite visual cues such as different lighting on taxiways, they aimed their jet to land to the right of 28R, on a parallel taxiway where the other planes were waiting to take off.

A Google Earth view of Runways 28L and 28R at San Francisco International Airport. During a nighttime landing in July, 2017, an Air Canada flight crew confused a crowded taxiway at the top of this image (outlined in green) with their assigned runway, 28R. The crew's confusion partially stemmed from runway 28L being closed and dark at the time.
A Google Earth view of Runways 28L and 28R at San Francisco International Airport. During a nighttime landing in July 2017, an Air Canada flight crew confused a crowded taxiway at the top of this image (outlined in green) with their assigned runway, 28R. The crew's confusion partially stemmed from runway 28L being closed and dark at the time. (Google Earth)

According to the NTSB, the pilots told investigators that they didn't see planes on the taxiway, but that something did not look right.

The first airliner in the departing queue on the taxiway was United Airlines Flight 1, headed for Singapore, commanded by Capt. Keith Freeberg.

Flight 1 had been awaiting clearance to depart for half an hour when the Air Canada plane approached the airport. After Freeberg saw the Airbus was "aiming at us" and not correcting course, he radioed the controller on duty, "Where's that guy going? He's on the taxiway."

Listen to the Exchange on SFO Air Traffic Control

Listen to the Exchange on SFO Air Traffic Control

Greg Sembower, first officer on another United flight in the taxiway lineup, wrote that "within one or two seconds of this transmission, all of us in our cockpit became fully aware that Air Canada was lost and headed our way. Our captain turned on all of our lights, to include the landing lights, taxi light, turnoff lights."

The Air Canada pilots abandoned the landing and pulled their plane up just in time to avoid catastrophe.

An NTSB staff member said Tuesday that they calculated the plane flew just 10 feet to 20 feet above United Flight 1, then circled and returned for a safe landing.

Both pilots of the Airbus A320, which was arriving from Toronto, were experienced. The captain, who was flying the plane, had more than 20,000 hours of flying time, and the co-pilot had about 10,000 hours.

In May, federal officials blamed pilot error for three other close calls in the previous 16 months at the San Francisco airport. Pilots say that the airport, with parallel runways close to each other, requires special attention during landings.

The Air Canada incident led the FAA to issue new rules for the airport covering nighttime landings when one of the runways is closed and better late-night control-tower staffing.

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