Pilots Abort Landings At A Few Hundred Feet To Avoid Runway Disaster

alaska airline jet sitting on airport tarmac opposite a united plane in the background.
alaska airline jet sitting on airport tarmac opposite a united plane in the background.

In 1977, 583 people were killed in a collision between two airliners at Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife. It was the deadliest disaster in aviation history. The tragedy was partly caused by radio miscommunications and interference as a KLM Boeing 747 attempted to take off without proper clearance and didn’t receive a warning to stop. A similar issue nearly caused another disaster at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) last week.

Last Friday, United Airlines Flight 277 was arriving at SFO from Dulles International Airport near Washington D.C. when disaster nearly struck. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the aircraft received clearance to land on Runway 28 Left. However, minutes later, the flight’s captain radioed the air traffic control to say that he was going around. There was a Southwest Airlines plane on the runway. The United captain aborted his landing while 350 feet above the ground.

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The captain of the Southwest jet had clearance to cross Runway 28 Left and line up on the parallel Runway 28 Right, but the airline moved too slowly across the tarmac. After the United plane aborted landing, the Southwest pilot was warned by the air traffic controller, “You shouldn’t be on the runway.” The pilot had missed the clearance to take off on 28 Right. It appears two pilots had hit their radio buttons at the same time of the Southwest flight crew missed the controller’s message.

The ordeal wasn’t over yet. The Southwest jet was ordered to clear Runway 28 Right because Alaska Airlines Flight 553 was already cleared to land on the runway. The Alaska pilot was forced to abort after descending to 550 feet.

Two near-misses were caused by a complete breakdown in communications. There have been several high-profile near-misses since the start of the year, and the Federal Aviation Administration is making critical investments to make airports safer. The improvements could not come soon enough.

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