On Friday night, a disaster was averted at San Francisco International Airport.

Air Canada flight 759, an Airbus A320 on final approach from Toronto with 140 passengers nearly touched down on a taxiway where there were multiple aircraft and thousands of passengers.

While on final approach, the pilot of the approaching Air Canada aircraft inadvertently lined up for taxiway C, or “Charlie,” instead of runway 28R where the aircraft was supposed to land.

Live air traffic control audio reveals the conversations that occurred leading up to, during, and after the nearly disastrous encounter. You can listen in here:

The pilots were clearly confused, which was made evident when the pilot of AC759 said to the tower, “Just want to confirm, this is Air Canada 759 we see some lights on the runway there. Confirming good to land?”

It is suspected the lights the pilots noticed were the anti-collision lights on the four aircraft holding on taxiway C, which runs parallel to runway 28R. The tower controller responded giving the aircraft an all-clear to land but an unidentified aircraft exclaimed into the radio, “Where is this guy going?” likely noticing the Air Canada aircraft lining up for the wrong strip of pavement.

The tower controller then gave the Canadian jet the direction to “go around,” a term used to tell an aircraft to abort a landing immediately and climb to the instructed altitude.

A graphic showing the layout of San Francisco International Airport shows how easy it could be to mix up the taxiway with the runway.

In what could have been a tragic event, the flight crews of the aircraft holding on the taxiway report the aircraft on approach to be as close as 100 feet above, and 200 feet above the aircraft second in line.

The air traffic controller later informed the Air Canada flight crew, saying “Air Canada 759, it looks like you were lined up or Charlie there.”

The aircraft involved was an Air Canada Airbus A320-200 aircraft, the exact same as the aircraft pictured. (Photo: Max Trimm / Layoverhub)

The aircraft waiting in line on the taxiway during the incident were identified to be:

  • United Airlines flight #1, a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to Singapore with roughly 252 passengers onboard
  • United Airlines flight #863, a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to Sydney with roughly 252 passengers onboard
  • United Airlines flight #1118, a Boeing 737-900ER to Tampa with roughly 167 passengers onboard
  • Philippines Airlines flight #115, a Airbus A340-300 to Manila with roughly 264 passengers onboard

Many have pointed at pilot fatigue as a reasonable cause to this near-collision, and retired United Airlines pilot Ross Aimer said in a statement, “I would like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and Transport Canada to look into the “pilot fatigue issue” very closely! Fatigue is a silent killer in aviation and other modes of transportation, but often ignored.”

Pilot fatigue is not a new issue to aviation, as there have been many accidents and fatalities due to pilot fatigue in the last few decades. Among them:

  • Korean Airlines flight 801, a Boeing 747 approaching Guam’s Antonio Wan Pat Airport, crashed just three miles short of the runway. 228 of 254 passengers died, and the pilot not informing the co-pilot of the airport’s approach procedure due to fatigue was blamed for the accident. At 1:42 a.m., the aircraft slammed into Nimitz Hill near the airport.
  • American Airlines flight 1420, a McDonell Douglas MD-82 aircraft landing at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, Arkansas, overran the runway killing 11 of 145 passengers onboard. With severe thunderstorms around the airport and fatigued pilots, they simply misjudged the landing and proceeded to land with crosswinds far beyond the safe limit.
  • Northwest Airlines flight 188, an Airbus A320 aircraft nearing Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota overflew their destination by nearly 150 nautical miles (278 km) due to both pilots falling asleep midflight. The aircraft landed nearly an hour late thanks to a flight attendant who woke the pilots up when it was past scheduled landing time.

Fatigue causes many issues psychologically and physically, the most obvious of which are delayed reaction time, somnolence, or lethargy. Pilots who are fatigued enough may encounter microsleep, an episode of sleep or drowsiness where an individual effectively falls unconscious for as long as 5 minutes. Sleep deprivation is the most common culprit, which is very much a hazard amongst pilots who often work long hours and have to wake up at very early times to make their respective flights.

Needless to say, a tragedy was averted at SFO on Friday night, where hundreds of passengers were put at risk due to the possible fatigue of the pilots on an Air Canada jet. Should more policies be introduced regarding pilot fatigue?

The FAA and NTSB is still investigating the incident, and updates are to come. Check back at Layoverhub for new information.