I’m sure we have all heard of that Air Canada plane in SFO not so long ago. I guess none of us know the answer of why the pilot almost landed on a taxiway, but I was wondering how you make that mistake. The taxiway had four lit up planes, and I assume the runway was lit up like usual. As current pilots, have any of you ever made a mistake between a runway and a taxiway when approaching? I want your opinions on what could have been going through their mind. Also why don’t you think the FO caught onto the mistake earlier?
Pilots are human and humans make mistakes. It’s really that simple. I wasn’t in the cockpit so I can’t speak intelligently regarding what threats may have led to that particular error (fatigue, irregular lighting, unfamiliarity or OVER familiarity). I was actually in a very similar situation a few years back. The other pilot was flying, visual approach, and appeared to me we were slightly right of course but not terrible. I was thinking maybe he’s making a wind correction so I let it go a little longer. As we got closer it became apparent that he was lined up with the taxiway and I queried him. His initial response was confusion and then he reassessed the information he was receiving. A loud expletive and a quick correction followed. There were no other planes involved and I’m sure we were the only ones that noticed. As for the FOs delay I suspect his response may have been similar to mine? He may have thought the Capt was going to correct? Perhaps he was distracted running the landing checklist or he may have actually said something earlier and it took some time for the Capt to assess and react. Normal descent on an approach is about 700ft per minute. At 1000’ you’re still over 3mi from the runway and if the taxiway and runway are close, from the right seat the alignment could appear correct (especially in a crosswind). IF the FO said something at 1000’ the plane is still descending, the Capt would obviously be confused as he thinks he’s ok (still descending), re-assess (still descending) finally reacts. Keep in mind large planes have tremendous momentum and they don’t just go from a descent to a climb in the blink of an eye. Easy to see how they got down to 400’. In the end the FO did catch the error and the crew responded and averted an accident.
Again I wasn’t in the cockpit but there was obviously an error made. The error was caught and the plane went around. While the news loves to sensationalize these things and say “they almost”, “they could’ve”, bla bla bla the fact is they didn’t. The primary job of the modern airline pilot is to manage threats and errors and they did their job.
This brings up another question I have. What technology do you have in the cockpit that helps you line up on your desired runway? I assume landings don’t rely solely on vision.
Also, how difficult are landings where there are low clouds or fog and you can’t see the runway till late in the decent?
Generally speaking, we use something called an Instrument Landing System (ILS), it is essentially two radio beams that are broadcast from near the runway that guide the airplane to the runway. There are other methods available like GPS and VOR approaches, but ILS is the primary method.
Depending on the quality of the ILS and the type of airplane, they can actually help an airplane land in visibility as low as 300 feet, which is incredibly low visibility.
The Instrument approaches Chris talks about honestly aren’t difficult at all. The equipment is incredibly accurate and it’s simply a matter of lining up the cross-hairs. So accurate that the A330 I fly (and many other aircraft) will actually land itself (aka AutoLand). Visual approaches are often must more difficult because you’re simply relying on your own “sight picture” and skill which is why SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) at most airlines is to ALWAYS back up a visual approach with an Instrument procedure.
I’m very interested in the AutoLand process. Could you briefly explain it? I know it involves using both auto pilots, but I don’t really understand the how the aircraft’s flare is automated. Also, while I know this isn’t happening tomorrow, or even in the next 20 years or so, won’t this technology ultimately lead to ruling out the need for the human pilot? I know plenty of airlines have thousands of new planes on order that will have service life’s of appx. 30 years or so and require two humans at the controls, but it’s hard not to see where this is going. If they can automatically land the aircraft in 2018, it seems the rest of automated flight operations shouldn’t be too far off. It this something that is often or ever discussed with your colleagues?
The airplane uses two or even three auto pilots, coupled to an ILS signal to guide the airplane to near the ground. The flare is automated using a radar altimeter that senses the aircraft height above the ground and flares accordingly.
Autoland capability has been around for decades and it certainly has not replaced pilots yet. It is one thing to guide an airplane for the last few minutes of a flight, it is another to fly an eight hour mission and make all of the decisions that come during that time frame. None of the mentors on here or the pilots that I know are remotely concerned about this.
Pop Quiz: Do you know when the first commercial jet landed using AutoLand? 1965. That was 53 years ago. I just checked my schedule and it still has me flying tomorrow morning at 0822 so I’m thinking I’m ok. SkyNet hasn’t become self aware, the machines haven’t created the Matrix and we don’t all need to go under ground and start the revolution.
Chris covered the basics well but what he didn’t mentioned is the parameters to use AutoLand are very tight. There are head, tail and crosswind limits, no components of the system (ground or aircraft) can be deferred, it can only be used on certain runways etc. In short if the airlines relied solely on AutoLand the majority of flights would never land.
Back to the robots. No this not something I have EVER discussed other than on this forum. As I said in my last response on the subject it’s not a concern at all and if I’m wrong then I’m wrong but the sun will still rise in the morning
Wow, I would have never guessed this technology was employed that far back. I do find it very interesting and certainly recognize as a pilot myself that there are countless human decisions that go into the many facets of flight operations. When posing the question to other airline pilots, I’ve heard varied answers from maybe in the next 50 years, to maybe one human pilot instead of two. Nothing to worry about in terms of my career window but again I do find it interesting and I’ll never discredit the skill set professional pilots have as I aspire to be one myself.
All the best,