A preliminary report suggests the Airbus A320 was seconds from crashing into two other jets at San Francisco airport. The pilot erroneously attempted to land on a taxiway instead of the runway.
Canadian air safety regulators released on Friday a short summary of last week's near miss, which revealed that the pilot of the Air Canada jetliner mistakenly flew for 0.4 kilometers (a quarter of a mile) over a taxiway as he attempted to land at San Francisco International Airport.
The first official report into last Friday night's incident described how Flight 759 flew within just 30 meters (100 feet) of two of four other fully loaded passenger planes that were lined up to take off. It then flew just 60 meters from the third plane and 90 meters from the fourth, according to Canada's Transportation Safety Board.
The CTSB summary confirmed that the pilot of Flight 759 had erroneously lined up the plane with Taxiway C, which runs parallel to Runway 28R, on which he had clearance to land.
Taxiways are feeder roads that planes use to move between runways and terminals, and have different lights.
Controller was busy
The air traffic controller handling the aircraft's approach was busy with other activities when they were alerted to the wayward plane by one of the flight crews on the ground, according to the CTSB's findings.
"The controller was coordinating with another facility when a flight crew member from another airline ... queried as to where [the Air Canada jet] was going, then stated that the ACF759 appeared to be lined up with Taxiway C," the statement said.
The air traffic controller, who had been unaware that the Air Canada jet was not lined up with the runway, had previously dismissed the pilot's concerns that there were airplane lights ahead of him.
The controller only ordered the plane to abort its landing, go around, and make a second attempt after it had flown 0.4 kilometers over the taxiway. The plane immediately pulled up sharply, narrowly missing the four other planes.
Air Canada Flight 759 from Toronto was landing in San Francisco on Friday night when the near miss occured
Air industry stunned
One aviation expert and former pilot, Ross Aimer, has said the close call could have been "the greatest aviation disaster in history."
While John Cox, an airline safety consultant said: "What is so unusual about this one is the airplanes could see each other and they still got this close. These guys really did intend to land on this taxiway."
On Wednesday, a California state official who was on board Flight 759 said the pilot didn't inform passengers of the near miss.
"It was just really strange because clearly something was wrong, but they didn't really give us any information afterward. So to see that we almost landed on four planes full of passengers is a little disturbing," California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones told The Associated Press.
Pilot made excuses
Jones said the pilot accounted for the go-around by saying that there was more traffic than usual and everything was fine.
Collisions involving planes waiting to take off are particularly dangerous because they are loaded with fuel.
The worst crash in aviation history occurred in 1977 when a KLM Boeing 747 taking off in the Canary Islands hit a Pan Am 747 that was waiting to take off in deep fog; 583 people died in the crash and fires.