A recent incident at SFO with a near-miss prompted the FAA to issue reminders and recommendations about approach safety.
You’ve likely heard about the close call back in July at SFO, where an Air Canada flight came dangerously close to landing on a taxiway and causing an unprecedented disaster. The short explanation is that Runway 28L was closed and unlit; the crew mistook Runway 28R for Runway 28L, and tried to land on a populated taxiway, thinking it was 28R. The long explanation is, of course, still under investigation, but in the meantime, both the FAA and SFO are taking steps to keep such close and dangerous calls from happening again. While the changes at SFO will only affect those who regularly fly there, the FAA’s recommendations (in the form of a SAFO) can benefit you at any airport, any time.
First, the changes at SFO: the airport will no longer allow aircraft to conduct visual approaches at night if one of two parallel runways is closed. This should alleviate confusion about which runway is which due to lighting. SFO will also always have two controllers watching outside the tower cab windows late at night during periods of heavy traffic. This is a response to the controllers in the tower at the time not catching what Air Canada was doing until it was almost too late.
SAFO 17010 is the FAA’s response to the event, reminding pilots of best practices for approaches and landings. It’s worth reading the SAFO in its entirety, but here are the highlights:
- Ensuring a stabilized approach is vital for crews to maintain situational awareness and avoid landing in the wrong place or other issues related to approach and landing. Unstable approaches require more time and focus from the crew, distracting them from other critical tasks.
- Where possible, published approaches such as VOR, LOC, ILS, RNAV, or others provide an accurate alternative to visual approaches. This is especially key in situations such as the Air Canada’s, where an unusual situation (a closed runway) created confusion about the landing area.
- Good CRM dictates that crews work together and communicate when anything at all about any phase of flight seems “off.” A crewmember who believes something is amiss is fully responsible for communicating that quickly and clearly. It is better to use extra caution and find out nothing was wrong than to end up in a dangerous situation because you did not speak up.
- Be prepared to conduct a go-around the second one is called. When possible, practice go-arounds to ensure you can perform them without hesitation.
Another key point not listed in the SAFO is the importance of good communication with ATC at all times. While we certainly leave the job of determining where communication could have been improved with Air Canada to the investigators, knowing when to ask questions and verify information with ATC during an approach and landing can help avoid such events in the future.
Remember: if any doubt exists at all, it is always better to clarify your information using all the resources available, including charts, ATC, checklists, and your crew.
- Arriving SFO Aircraft Can Expect a Few Changes
- SAFO 17010: Incorrect Airport Surface Approaches and Landings
- Pilot explains how Air Canada jet nearly caused a major aviation disaster
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