A top California state official said Wednesday he was a passenger on an Air Canada jet that nearly landed on a taxiway where four other planes were sitting rather than the designated runway at San Francisco International Airport.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones was on the flight from Toronto returning from a conference of insurance regulators when the pilot mistakenly made his approach toward the taxiway Friday night instead of the nearby runway.
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"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," said Jones.
Federal officials are investigating the incident.
Passengers were not told about the near-calamity after the plane landed safely, Jones said. Instead, he said the pilot told the 140 passengers on board that there was more traffic than usual and everything was fine, he said.
But he said he knew something was wrong because as the plane descended, the engines revved, and then the plane climbed.
"I've never experienced something like that for as low we were," said Jones. "You could tell something wasn't right."
In audio posted on liveatc.net, which records flight communications, the pilot on the plane and the air traffic controller sounded calm as the close call unfolded.
At first, the pilot said he sees "some lights on the runway," apparently alluding to planes on the taxiway, the aviation equivalent of feeder roads that planes use to roll between runways and terminals.
The controller assures the pilot there is no one on the runway. Seconds later, another voice — apparently one of the pilots on the taxiway — interjects, "Where's this guy going? He's on the taxiway."
The controller orders the Air Canada jet to "go around," and the pilot acknowledges the command.
Roughly 30 seconds later, a United Airlines pilot on the taxiway says the jet "flew directly over us."
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor would not comment on how close Air Canada Flight 759 came to disaster, citing his agency's ongoing investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board also will review what happened.
This story has been corrected to show that the flight originated in Toronto.