Video captured the moment that an Air Canada jet flew off course and just over four other jetliners filled with passengers late on a July night last year in San Francisco. On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board will meet to determine the probable cause of the close call.
Board members are likely to focus on actions of the Air Canada pilots, who may have been confused because one of two parallel runways, called 28L, was closed for construction that night, and its lights were turned off.
The Air Canada crew was cleared to land on 28R, to the right of 28L. According to a preliminary NTSB report , the pilots thought the lighted runway was 28L – not theirs – and they aimed their jet to land to the right of that, on a parallel taxiway where the other planes were waiting to take off.
According to the NTSB, the pilots told investigators that they didn’t see planes on the taxiway, but that something did not look right.
A United Airlines pilot in one of the planes warned air traffic controllers about the onrushing Air Canada jet, and pilots on a Philippine Airlines jet switched on their landing lights in an apparent warning maneuver.
The Air Canada jet flew as low as 59 feet above the ground before the pilots abandoned the landing and pulled their plane up. They flew over the taxiway just a few dozen feet above the first of the four waiting jetliners, 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 Federal Aviation Administration to issue new rules for the airport covering nighttime landings when one of the runways is closed and better late-night control-tower staffing.