To be clear, a go around is usually a routine event – a non-event. This is the case if it occurs at SFO Airport or anywhere else on the planet. It occurs when a pilot decides that a safe landing can not be effected, for whatever reason – and then decides to discontinue the approach, add power, climb away, and reposition the aircraft for another approach. The pilot can decide to go around or the Tower can direct the pilot to go around.
SFO Airport – Aeromexico flight AM668 goes around
On the 9th of January 2018 Aeromexico flight AM668 was cleared to land on Runway 28 Right at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and made a correct read-back of the clearance. Subsequently however, the Aeromexico Boeing 738 (737-800) then aligned itself, during its approach, on Runway 28 Left – a runway that was occupied at the time by a Virgin America A320 Airbus.
Reports suggest that AM668 had been lined up on the wrong runway for at least the last 9 nautical miles of the approach. If true, this raises the obvious question of whether the air traffic controllers in the tower noticed that flight 668 was aligned with the wrong runway. Perhaps they did. It is said that AM668 was less than 2nm from touchdown when the tower directed it to go around, which it did.
Apparently the Instrument Landing System (ILS) was in use on both runways at SFO at the time, so it would likely that the plane was being flown on autopilot ‘down’ the ILS. It is possible, but unlikely, that the plane was being manually flown by the handling pilot.
One possibility is that the crew programmed the ILS approach for the wrong runway and failed to cross check frequencies etc during the approach.
In the bottom right corner of the photo above you can see the west-facing runways 28L and 28R, complete with approach lighting extending into the bay.
Who makes the decision to go around?
As an aside, the Pilot in Command (PIC) of an aircraft has the ultimate authority and responsibility for the safe outcome of the flight. Therefore he or she can refuse a direction from Air Traffic Control (ATC) for emergency or safety reasons, but will certainly have to justify that action to the airline and other relevant authorities once on the ground.
For example, if ATC tells you to turn left into a mountain you would decline that clearance and request an alternative turn direction. So the practical result of this is that if the Tower tells you to go around, you almost always do, unless complying with the Tower would put the flight at risk.
Asiana 777 leaves go around until too late
In July 2013 an Asiana (Korean) 777 crash landed short of the runway during a visual approach, with all pilots on the flight deck failing to either notice or mention a below-slope approach with decaying speed. A go around was commanded very, very late. It was too late. A video of the crash is on the CNN website, courtesy of the main who filmed it, Fred Hayes.
The moral of the story here (there are many) may be to monitor and cross check everything, know what your automation is doing, speak up when you need to…and if you are going to go around, make a positive decision to do so as soon it becomes apparent that you should do so.
Air Canada flight AC781 doesn’t go around
In July 2017 Air Canada flight AC781, an Airbus A320, was cleared to land but subsequently did not respond to six (6) directives from the tower to go around, as the previous aircraft had not yet cleared the runway. The Air Canada crew landed despite repeated calls from the tower. They would later claim that they has radio problems. Yet a modern airliner like the A320 would usually have at least 3 radios available, so failure of all 3 radios would be an unlikely event.
‘Cleared to land’
It is a routine practice in the US, and at SFO Airport, to issue landing clearances to aircraft on approach, even if they are number 2 or 3 in the landing sequence, and while a runway is still occupied by preceding landing or departing aircraft.
This assists ATC in handling large volumes of traffic but places a small burden of responsibility on the pilot. As their aircraft approaches the runway threshold there may be a very, very small chance that the runway is not clear and that they, or the tower, may have cause to instigate a last minute go around.
Other recent ‘go arounds’ and incidents at SFO
There have been other go arounds recently at SFO Airport, too. On the 15th of February 2017 a Virgin America flight was lining up on runway 28L while a Compass Airlines flight was on short final. The Compass flight was directed to go around, which it did.
In July 2017 another Air Canada flight – AC759 was on approach, aligned with a taxiway, rather than runway 28R as cleared, and was directed to go around by the tower, which it did, flying over the top of United flight UA1 to Singapore, which was taxiing on taxiway Charlie.
On the 14th of December 2016 a SkyWest Airlines flight moved beyond a clearly marked holding point on to a runway on which a United Airlines Boeing 737 was taking off. This runway incursion, which occurred after sunset, is under investigation.
Is this any different from any other airport?
We will see. The FAA and NTSB are investigating all of these, and other incidents. Any systemic failures or common factors will no doubt be identified and promulgated to all relevant parties.
In the meantime it is fair to say that go arounds occur almost every day at almost every major airport in the world. It is nothing new. If there are any common issues at SFO they will be identified and remedies discussed, as is the normal practice in aviation.