An Air Canada pilot nearly puts his Airbus A320 down on taxiway Charlie, running parallel to 28R. At that moment, a queue of airliners were on Charlie, holding short of runway 28R. They are waiting for Air Canada to land for their turn on the runway.
After receiving final VFR clearance from SFO Tower, the Air Canada pilot asks for confirmation, saying he sees “lights on the runway.”
As the controller responds “It’s just you on the runway,” one of the planes holding short radios “where’s that guy going? He’s on the taxiway!”
The controller immediately commands the Air Canada pilot to “go around.” Abort the landing.
The A320 flies back up into the night, buzzing the queued-up planes on Charlie on its way out. Air Canada flight AC 759 lands without incident 50 minutes later.
A high-tech, radio-beaconed, distinctly lit runway like SFO’s 28R is hard to miss. Pilots report “runway in sight” 50 miles out, on a clear night, even further.
Often, the pilots don’t take full command of the aircraft until short final. As I understand modern navigation, it’s unlikely that the autopilot lined the plane up to land on Charlie instead of 28R. In any case, reports are that the airplane got as low as 175 feet. It was certainly under human control.
What confused the pilot flying the airplane into thinking the taxiway was the runway? How did he miss the big, dynamic lighting clearly guiding planes to its threshold?
And what of the monitoring pilot? Did both pilots make the same mistake or did one stay silent or not notice?
All this reminds me of a quote (of course):
“Thank God, men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Clear to land!