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Smoke, Electric Power Loss Complicate United A320 Landing

By Fareed Guyot, Manager – Electronic Publications, EAA 388642

United497
United Airlines Flight 497 made an emergency landing at Louis Armstrong International Airport on April 4, 2011, after an electrical failure caused the loss of most instruments. Braking and steering on landing may also have been affected.
Photo courtesy: Brett Duke/ The Times-Picayune

April 6, 2011 — A United Airlines Airbus A320 made an emergency landing in New Orleans (KMSY) just minutes after departing the airport Wednesday. United 497 was bound for San Francisco (KSFO) with 109 passengers and crew when the pilots noticed smoke in the flight deck as the aircraft climbed through 4,000 feet. An electrical failure soon followed and all avionics displays went blank.

The electrical failure went far beyond instrumentation, possibly affecting nosewheel steering and aircraft braking which prompted the crew to request a longer runway. The emergency could not have come at a worse time as MSY’s longest runway was closed for maintenance.

When an in-flight emergency involves smoke or fire a quick return to the airport is imperative to increase chances of a positive outcome. United 497 elected a quick return; however Runway 10, which is 10,000 feet long, was filled with maintenance vehicles. The weather was 2,500 feet overcast with seven miles visibility and winds at 180, 15 knots gusting to 22.

In a recording of the air traffic radio exchange, controllers are heard helping the aircraft descend and line up for an instrument approach. Due to the loss of most the aircraft's instrumentation controllers were giving the crew turn-by-turn instructions known as an ASR (Airport Surveillance Radar) or “no-gyro” approach.

Meanwhile controllers and MSY operations officials were frantically trying to clear Runway 10 but were not able to as United 497 was 10 miles away. One controller commented to an operations worker that he hadn't seen any vehicles move and "...the aircraft has to have Runway 10."

Listen to the audio of United 497’s emergency landing here.   Audio courtesy LiveATC.net

Despite its insistence on Runway 10 the crew was forced to use Runway 19 (7,000 feet long) when Runway 10 could not be cleared in time. Controllers were able to descend the aircraft low enough and vector it along Lake Pontchartrain so the crew was able to make a visual approach.

The aircraft touched down normally but the lack of electrical power and a 32,000-pound fuel load may have caused the aircraft to depart one side of the runway where it came to rest with a blown tire and its nosewheel stuck in the mud according to the Times - Picayune.

All passengers and crew were evacuated, although one forward slide failed to deploy. The nature and extent of the fire in the cockpit has not been released.

Passengers said they gave the crew a round of applause after the plane touched down. "What he (the pilot) did was amazing," said Hope Burns, 48, of San Francisco.

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