Air Canada near miss: picture shows how close planes came to crashing

Pilots mistook the taxiway at San Francisco International Airport for the runway and flew their plane only 59 feet above waiting airliners

Newly released data and photos show how shockingly low an Air Canada jet was when it pulled up to avoid crashing into planes waiting on a San Francisco International Airport taxiway last month.

The Air Canada pilots misstep the taxiway for the runway next to it and flew their airplane to only 59 feet( 18 meters) above ground before pulling up to attempt another landing, according to National Transportation Safety Board information released Wednesday.

Thats scarcely taller than the four planes that were on the taxiway when the incident occurred late at night on 7 July.

Pilots in a United Airline plane alerted air traffic controllers about the off-course airplane, while the crew of a Philippine Airline airplane behind it switched on their airliners landing lights in an apparent last-ditch danger signal to Air Canada.

Images released by the National Transportation Safety Board( NTSB) indicates Air Canada flight 759( ACA 759) attempting to land at the San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. At top is a map of the runway. At centre is from a transmission to air traffic control from a United Airlines airplane on the taxiway. The bottom image was taken from San Francisco International Airport video. Photograph: AP

NTSB researchers said they have not decided probable cause for the incident that came within a few feet of becoming one of the worst disasters in aviation history.

It was close, much too close, said John Cox, a safety consultant and retired airline pilot.

The researchers used to say as the Air Canada airplane approached the taxiway just before midnight after a flight from Toronto, it was so far off course that it did not appear on a radar system used to prevent runway collisions.

Those systems were not designed to place aircrafts that are lined up to land on a taxiway a rare instance, especially for airline pilots. But the Federal Aviation Administration is working on modifications so they can, agency spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Both pilots of the Air Canada Airbus A320 airplane were very experienced. The captain, who was flying the plane, had more than 20,000 hours of flying period, and the co-pilot had about 10,000 hours.

The pilots told researchers that they did not recollect insuring aircraft on taxiway but that something did not look right to them, the NTSB said.

Investigators could not hear what the Air Canada captain and co-pilot said to each other during the aborted landing because their conversation was recorded over when the plane made other flights, starting with a San Francisco-to-Montreal trip the next morning. Recorders are required to capture merely the last two hours of a planes flying time.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

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