The terrifying near-miss incident on July 7 at SFO has just gotten even more terrifying as the National Transportation Safety Board reveals in a new report that the misguided Air Canada pilots came within just a few feet of hitting a United Airlines 787. Investigators previously believed the Air Canada jet had come below 100 feet in altitude before pulling up again, but now, as KQED reports, the NTSB is saying the plane came as low as 59 feet off the ground.
The incident occurred at 11:45 p.m. on a Friday last month, and in interviews the pilots of Air Canada flight 759 say they both believed they were lined up to land on SFO's 28R runway, when in fact they were heading for a taxiway on which four jumbo jets were readying for takeoff. The confusion stems from ongoing construction work that had the 28L runway shut down and dark that night, but lit with a large X at the base of it. The pilots thought that the lights of 28R were actually 28L, but for some reason thought that the blue-lit taxiway was also a runway. The Air Canada pilots both said that something didn't look right to them they had also asked for confirmation that they were cleared to land at about 300 feet in altitude after seeing lights on what they thought was the runway and were it not for some shouts over the radio from the pilots in planes on the taxiway, this could have become the biggest disaster in aviation history.
After the Air Canada jet was told to "go around" by air traffic control, the pilot of the United jet that was at the foot of the taxiway was heard over the radio saying, "United 1. Air Canada flew directly over us." And when he said directly, he meant really, really close.
As ABC 7 notes, the United jet was 29 feet off to the left of the Air Canada plane's path, but the tip of the tail of a Boeing 787 sits at 56 feet, meaning that the Air Canada jet came within just three feet of clipping it at its lowest point.
One of the four planes on the taxiway switched on its bright landing lights, as KRON 4 reports, in a last-second effort to alert the Air Canada pilots that they were headed straight for disaster.
According to the report, the Air Canada pilot had over 20,000 hours flying the type of jet he was in that night, and the first officer had over 10,000 hours flying experience.
The incident caused an immediate flurry of talk among pilots given the implications of the near-miss and how many lives could have been lost.