The pilots in command of the Air Canada Airbus A320 which nearly landed on top of four airliners in San Francisco last summer, were experienced airmen, an investigation shows.
The captain who was flying that night, had 20,000 hours with 4,000 in the Airbus A320 while the first officer had 10,000 hours. Still, the two attempted to land on a taxiway on which four airliners were waiting to to depart.
Camera footage of the near collision of Air Canada Flight 759 was released today by the National Transportation Safety Board which is investigating what might have been a multi-airliner pileup and a disaster of record-breaking potential.
The flight from Toronto to San Francisco last July 7 had the pilots attempting to land on the taxiway adjacent to their assigned runway, 28R. Twenty-eight Left had been closed for repairs and its normal lights turned off. Instead, a twenty-foot wide runway closure X was illuminated and flashing at the runway threshold.
The NTSB reported that the pilots did not recall seeing airplanes on Taxiway C, but “believed the lighted runway on their left was 28L and that they were lined up for 28R.”
Four airliners; 2 United Airlines Boeing 787s and a third United 737, and a Philippine Airlines Airbus A340 were below the Air Canada flight as it descended. The NTSB probe says that before the pilots realized the pavement was not clear and initiated a go around, the plane was 59 feet above the ground. That’s paint scraping distance if you consider the tail of the first Dreamliner in the line rises to 66 feet.
As the scene unfolded before their eyes, one of the pilots in the cockpit of United flight 1, the first plane in line wonders over the radio, “Where’s this guy going?”
It is worth noting that the flight arrived at 4 minutes before midnight Pacific time, making fatigue a likely subject of discussion for the safety board. In fact, this is the investigation that might-not-have-been because Air Canada failed to report the event at the time. As a consequence, the jetliner continued to fly over the weekend and the cockpit voice recorder tape was overwritten, as I reported for Forbes at the time.
How attentive the crew was to preparing the flight for landing, what was going on outside the cockpit and the pilots’ observations of the ground as they approached during VFR conditions will be far more difficult to determine because of the loss of CVR data.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.