Disaster Averted! Or Not?
When I first saw the story yesterday in the Mercury News, that a jet had to execute a go-around at SFO after lining up on the taxiway instead of the runway, my first reaction was that the “disaster averted!” angle was overwrought. Really? I thought. Just like every day, when I tap the brakes to stop at a red light, I guess that’s a disaster averted, too. After all, if I didn’t stop, carnage would likely ensue. Sure, a mistake was made by the A320 crew, but mistakes are always made, and that’s why there are checks in place, to be sure those mistakes don’t turn into smoking holes. Those checks worked, at SFO, just as they should have, and all went on as usual. No story here.
But then I listened to the audio (you can listen to it here, courtesy of atclive.net) and my heart skipped a beat. An A320 crew member called ATC to ask about the “lights on the runway.” The controller calls back that he’s “confirmed, clear to land,” and says “There’s no one on 28 Right but you.” OK, says the pilot, then a new voice chimes in. “Where’s this guy goin’? He’s on the taxiway.” As far as I know, that voice hasn’t been identified, except as maybe another pilot on the frequency. But in this case he might be labeled as the voice of reason, the clear light of reality, the last chance of averting disaster. “Go around,” ATC pipes in, and the crew goes around, all is well, nothing bad happened.
So how close a call was it? Would the crew have figured it out in time to react? It was almost midnight — pitch dark. It’s not clear exactly how high the A320 was when they made the call to ATC, but they were on final approach. It’s also not clear exactly what they were doing in the cockpit or how they got lined up wrong in the first place. If that voice hadn’t piped in … would ATC have figured it out in time to warn the A320 crew? It seems inevitable the crew would have figured it out shortly — but would they have figured it out in time to pull up and go around safely? An A320 scrolling down final has an awful lot of momentum. We’re lucky that we can sit around today and ask these questions, and not have to be thinking about all that wreckage at SFO.