The U.S. has one of the world’s best aviation safety records. The nation has rigorous pilot training and licensing requirements, sophisticated collision-avoidance systems, well-developed air traffic control and other safety measures. But that’s not to say something can’t go wrong.
On Friday, an Air Canada jetliner came close to landing on a taxiway at San Francisco International Airport where four commercial passenger jets were maneuvering. That near-miss, now under FAA investigation, recalls another landing mishap, which gained particular notoriety because the pilot of the misguided small plane happened to be actor Harrison Ford.
On Feb. 13, Ford took off from Santa Monica Municipal Airport and headed south to Orange County in his yellow and black Aviat Husky, a two-seat, single-engine prop plane with an overhead wing. It looks like a muscular Piper Cub.
Though cleared to use Runway 20L, Ford mistakenly landed on Taxiway C or “Charlie.” During his descent, Ford flew within an estimated 100 feet of an American Airlines Boeing 737 carrying more than 100 passengers and crew.
A few commercial jets have landed on airport taxiways in recent years, but it’s a rare and potentially catastrophic blunder — to put Ford’s mistake in perspective.
Using recordings of air traffic control communications, we'll now take you through his approach and landing at John Wayne Airport.
FORD: John Wayne Tower, this is Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform. Six miles west inbound. … would like left runway, please.
TOWER: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform, this is John Wayne Tower. Stand by.
TOWER: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform, cross over at 1,200. Watch for left traffic. Head for 20L.
FORD: At 1,300 over the (garbled) … watch for left traffic. Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform.
FORD: (Garbled) Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform.
TOWER: Wind 220 at 18. Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform, contact tower at 1 1 9er point 9er.
FORD: (Garbled) Acknowledges instructions.
FORD: John Wayne Tower. Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform crossing over. 1,300 to the left.
TOWER: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform. John Wayne Tower. Left traffic only. Traffic on a two-mile final for 20L. An Airbus reported in sight.
FORD: Airbus in sight … Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform.
TOWER: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform maintain visual separation. Caution wake turbulence. 20L clear to land.
FORD: (Garbled) Acknowledges clearance to land.
FORD: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform. Was that, ah, airliner meant to be underneath me that close on short final?
TOWER: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform. Negative. It was holding short of 20L. You landed on Charlie.
FORD: I landed on Charlie?
TOWER: That’s affirmative sir and … (garbled) … parking.
FORD: I am going to Signature East. Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform.
TOWER: Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform, continue on Charlie and hold short of Hotel.
FORD: Ooohhh. I landed on Taxiway Charlie. I understand now. Sorry for that.
FORD: Hi. Ah, this is Husky 8 9er Hotel Uniform. I'm the schmuck who landed on the taxiway. … I was distracted by the airliner which was in movement when I turned to the runway, and also the wake turbulence from the landing Airbus on the parallel runway.
TOWER: All right. Just need a couple of things. So possible pilot deviation cause you were cleared on the left and you …
FORD: I understand. I totally understand.
TOWER: I just need to get some stuff. I’ve got to fill out some paperwork that will go to the FSDO. Just need your name and your pilot’s license.
FORD: My name is Harrison Ford and my pilot’s license, I need to dig it out of here. It’s in my backpack.
TOWER: Take your time. No big deal.
FORD: Well, it’s a big deal for me. Hold on.
WILLARD: This is Irene. How can I help you?
PATTON: Hi Irene. It’s Capt. Edward Patton of American Airlines Flight 1456.
WILLARD: I’m sort of familiar with the incident that occurred earlier today. … We are looking into it. … I can tell you straight up that he was not cleared to land on Taxiway Charlie. He was cleared to land on 20 Left. … He seemed to switch over to Charlie on very short final. If the controller did not notice, the next thing you know he’s rolling out on Charlie.
PATTON: When you check the radar tapes -- I don’t know if you do that -- you can see the tail of my airplane is 42 feet tall. So when he went past, you get an idea how close we were.
WILLARD: The controller even stated there was less than 100 feet of separation at least from her perspective. … We know it was not a good position for him to be in.
After investigating the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration counseled Ford and required him to take awareness training, which he completed. The agency declined to reprimand him or suspend or revoke his pilot’s license. Ford’s attorney said his client made an honest mistake, is an experienced pilot, cooperated with FAA investigators and has never been the target of an FAA enforcement action.