Flight 497: The Gift of Time and Airport Proximity

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When I was listening to the ATC recordings of United Flight 497's emergency in New Orleans — you can hear them here — I was overwhelmed by one fact: Even in a sophisticated, multi-million dollar FAR 25 transport category tested to a fare-thee-well, things can go to hell in a hurry. What starts out as a minor problem can quickly escalate to the life threatening, as it appears to have aboard Flight 497. One minute, you can be behind a a panel full of all the flight data you could ever want, the next, it's just so much inert plastic and silicon.

As we've discussed before, when smoke and/or fire impacts the cockpit, survival time is measured in mere minutes and in that sense, 497 had one thing going for it: The smoke appeared just four minutes after takeoff and within 12 minutes, the pax and crew were evacuating on runway 19. Had the emergency occurred two hours later, with the airplane over the mountain west, it might have been infinitely more difficult to resolve safely or at least quickly. The weather was also relatively benign, although it looks like the crew may have had to contend with some broken IMC while flying on backup instrumentation with ATC providing the navigation via vectors. Gusty conditions resulted in turbulence, according to passengers.

This incident prompted me to review the accident record to look at two other fire-in-flight accidents whose outcome wasn't as happy. Remember ValuJet 592? It took off from Miami at 2:04 p.m. on May 11, 1996. At 2:14 p.m., it plunged into the Everglades killing all aboard after a horrific fire engulfed the cabin and cockpit. It took a mere 10 minutes. Almost two years later, Swissair 111, an MD-11 enroute from JFK to Geneva, reported an urgency with smoke in the aircraft at 10:14 p.m. The emergency escalated and by 10:31, the airplane had crashed in the ocean off Nova Scotia, killing all aboard. Seventeen minutes transpired. The investigation faulted the crew in detail for its response to the emergency, but it also concluded that nothing it could have done would have changed the final outcome. The airplane was simply too far from an airport to land in time to do the occupants any good.

Fortunately, Flight 497 was not and neither the crew nor ATC wasted any time getting it vectored for an approach to runway 19. As the investigation unfolds, I'll be curious to learn if the smoke condition was escalating. If you've ever been in a simulator smoke drill, you know that it doesn't take much to completely obscure the instruments and also the view outside. Full-face oxygen masks mean you can breathe, but not being able to see well or at all complicates the emergency response.

Flight 497 lost its primary instruments, according to the crew, but its comm radios remained alive so ATC could provide assistance. It's not the first time this has happened in an Airbus A320. In 2008, another United flight had a similar experience after takeoff from Newark, losing three of the six displays and several aircraft systems. No smoke or fire reported on that one. According to this NTSB report (PDF), Airbus concedes there were 49 such events, most due to failures in one of the main electrical busses. Seven of these resulted in the loss of all six flight displays.

In other words, events like this are hardly unheard of, although given the flight hours and cycles these airplanes fly, they're still a relative rarity. There are implications for light general aviation aircraft, which are going in the direction of full glass panels. The new Corvalis TTx Cessna unveiled at Sun 'n Fun has a Garmin G2000 with no mechanical backup gyros. It does have a supplemental glass gyro. Kind of gives one pause before shoving the throttle in and launching into a 200-foot overcast.

See a video on EVAS smoke vision system.

Click here for an article on flying the PAR.

Comments (39)

I've never flown anything like an airliner, but I'm sure the pilot said he lost ALL instruments. I interpret this to mean he was unable to fly the plane in IMC. He asked for PAR which (in my day) was available at all USAF bases and probably Naval Air Stations as well.

I guess there is a hole in my thinking here because the plane obviously landed safely. I do wonder why he didn't divert to the nearest military base (Barksdale?) equipped with PAR.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 7, 2011 6:06 AM    Report this comment

He did say all instruments, but I took that to be the primaries. The A320 has a backup gyro and I believe raw data pitot/static, too. The gyro runs on an independent power supply. We'll find out as the investigation progresses.

Perhaps someone flying the A320 can comment. New Orleans has ASR mins, but there may not have been need for it, given the weather and time involved. Ditto going somewhere with a PAR. In a smoke and fire situation, the accident record has shown you simply may not have the time.

Given the outcome and even with the Chinese fire drill on the runway, looks to me like everyone did alright. I'm not second guessing, just putting the accident in context with the timeline of others of its ilk.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 7, 2011 6:49 AM    Report this comment

Makes one wonder if decomissioning all our radar sites in favor of Nextgen is a real bright idea as well.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | April 7, 2011 7:22 AM    Report this comment

When the Air Canada DC9 barely made it to the BNA runway following an inflight lav fire, the drill for airline crews switched from "trouble shoot and fight the fire" to GET ON THE GROUND RIGHT NOW. There is no mandate taken more seriously by air line crews. I'm sure that diverting to a military (or any other) airport was simply not on this crew's agenda. Additionally, in this day and age there is no assurance that a PAR qualified controller is on duty anywhere. Knowing the terrain around MSY to be flat .... with sea level water on the approach path probably entered into this captain's decision to continue to the closest runway, even without his primary instruments.

Posted by: Kim Welch | April 7, 2011 7:24 AM    Report this comment

For someone not yet indoctrinated into the world of instrument flying, what does PAR mean?

Posted by: John Lutz | April 7, 2011 7:26 AM    Report this comment

PAR= Precision Approach Radar that provides both vertical and horizontal guidance to low mins similar to an ILS.

ASR = Airport Surveillance Radar, provides horizontal guidance and advisories on stepdowns for minimum altitudes. It considered non-precision, but is available at many airports. PAR is not and is becoming rarer by the year.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 7, 2011 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for that reminder on Air Canada. I forgot about it completely. 29 minute timeline on that one. It landed at Cincinnati. 21 fatalities due to smoke and fire. This is from the accident report:

"Had the airplane been landed at Louisville, it could have been landed 3 to 5 minutes earlier than it actually did land at Cincinnati. The delayed decision to descend and land contributed to the severity of the accident."

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 7, 2011 7:39 AM    Report this comment

The closest military airport to New Orleans is NAS New Orleans on the south side of the river, about 15nm from MSY. I cannot comment on the PAR capability. Full kudos to the crew, ATC & Tower though for a heroic effort and a great outcome.

Posted by: Kel Jones | April 7, 2011 7:46 AM    Report this comment

This kind of electrical failure should give anyone who has ever had a personal computer crash pause before flying with a glass panel with no mechanical backups. The big advantage to steam gauges is that they aren't likely to all fail simultaneously. Good column, but on a lighter note, one small nit to pick. I believe "fair-thee-well" should be "fare". I don't know if that was a typo, or homonym confusion.

Posted by: John Worsley | April 7, 2011 7:53 AM    Report this comment

I agree that the pilot here deserves hero status. It appears he found what we VFR pilots call a sucker hole and avoided the impossible task of flying in IMC with no instruments.

I would hazard a guess that the controller here, like most civilian aviation folks, had no clue what PAR is. The pilot had no choice here. He requested PAR and was offered a "No Gyro" approach which actually cannot be flown with no gyros. It is a special arrangement for aircraft without a directional gyro but still equipped with a working partial gyro panel.

I think if the ATC folks were properly trained to handle this sort of emergency (complete loss of instruments) the minimum response would have been to inform the pilot of the nearest PAR equipment available. I don't actually blame the controller but the FAA training.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 7, 2011 7:58 AM    Report this comment

2 things: First, don't forget that cargo airlines can have inflight fires also. UPS had one in a DC8 that landed at PHL. The other wasn't as successful: they crashed while trying to return a 747 to Dubai.

Second, if you haven't flown a PAR in a while, it's probably not something to try in an emergency. While based at Eglin years ago, it was fun to watch the Southern/Hughes/Republic DC-9 try out a PAR while in VMC. The pilot was not very good at it.

Posted by: Tim Long | April 7, 2011 8:30 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Mulwitz, both your comments appear to endorse the idea that it's more important to take additional time to reach more conveniently-equipped airports, over selecting one which is closer and more familiar to the flight-crew, not to mention more likely equipped to handle large airliners with civilian pax onboard. Mr. Bertorelli has it right, in my opinion...get it on the ground as quickly as possible at the nearest suitable airport in point-of-time. Onboard fires are not events luxurious with time.

Posted by: George Horn | April 7, 2011 8:43 AM    Report this comment

The issue of steam gauges to back up electronic instruments quickly becomes moot. When smoke enters the cockpit, the concerns are the ability to see ANY instrumentation or through the windshield to land the aircraft and incapacitation due to toxic smoke inhalation. Making a decision to land and do so ASAP is critical.

Posted by: DOUGLAS WILLEY | April 7, 2011 8:50 AM    Report this comment

It is far too soon to comment about the nature of this emergency, the actions of the crew or the outcome. Having said that, here's a comment. Sorry. This will most likely turn out to be a "Sullenberger Moment." Following the crash of Swissair 111, United Airlines studied the accident and brought the elements of this onboard smoke/fire event into the recurrent training process. From FL330 and 66 nautical miles out we were able bring a B777 to a full stop and initiate an evacuation on a Halifax runway in 13 minutes using simulation. Of course, this was a best-case scenario because the maneuver was pre-briefed. The value of this training became the prioritization of crew actions: diversion decision, clearance direct to airport, high energy descent, checklists and troubleshooting and overweight landing considerations. History has shown that cabin/cockpit electrical fires seldom get better. If so, it would be unlikely that the flight would continue to the original destination. Landing short is inevitable. Swissair lost precious time by requesting a vector to a holding area (away from Halifax) to jettison fuel. We will never know whether this was a fatal mistake. Overweight landings are becoming a more popular choice these days with emergent airborne problems but are not without consequences and surprises. The alternative loss of control, however, is guaranteed to make worldwide headlines. So far, what I see here is rapid, singular and effective decision-making.

Posted by: Randall Phillips | April 7, 2011 9:21 AM    Report this comment

Randall, what about the backup gyros on these airplanes? Do they not have them on a separate bus?

As for seeing the instruments through smoke, EVAS is a proven system that a few operators have adopted. See the link above at the end of the blog.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 7, 2011 9:28 AM    Report this comment

If the Southwest A320 is equipped like the one I fly, there are steam-gauge airspeed, altitude and attitude with an integral ILS display. No DG. The whiskey compass meets that requirement(LMAO). So, the pilots could keep the airplane upright while receiving turns from ATC. If the RMP (radio management panel) was U/S, then tuning the ILS would have been a problem... The final report will say more. Either way, a vectored let-down to VMC was a good idea, as well as led-by-the-nose to the runway.

Posted by: Peter Buckley | April 7, 2011 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Thanks, Peter. You meant to say United not Southwest. (Theirs are the ones whose roofs blow off and this keeps the smoke down.)

I assume the nav/comm tuning is mechanical. Looks that way in the photos. By mechanical, I mean a knob, not a digital iput device of some kind.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 7, 2011 9:39 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Horn,

My comments were not intended to second guess any decision made in this emergency. I was merely expressing my interpretation of actual events based on the audio recording.

Let me try again:

The pilot requested a PAR approach - suggesting he indeed had no instruments at all. The controller offered "No Gyro" approach.

I suspect the controller made two potentially fatal mistakes. He didn't recognize PAR, and he thought a plane with no instruments could perform a "No gyro" approach. As I said before, I don't blame the controller himself for this shortcoming. Rather, I suspect the FAA training just wasn't adequate to this particular emergency.

In my opinion the Pilot in Command requested the PAR. He should have been informed of the nearest PAR equipment and been enabled to make a decision whether to go there or continue toward his original choice for an emergency landing. He was prevented from making any decision about "Land Now" or "Land at the preferred location" because he wasn't given an alternate location with the preferred capability.

I don't think the controller made any decision regarding emergency landing location either. He merely did the best he could to get the plane on the ground at his location.

Let me say one more time - this pilot is a hero. The controller did his job as best he knew how. No foul by any of the people involved in this emergency.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 7, 2011 10:17 AM    Report this comment

A good friend of mine who flies for Air Tran always carries a backup hand held GPS. This is a carry over from his military flying days where he experienced several complete instrument failures in his Intruder and his hand held got him to safety.

Posted by: Ric Lee | April 7, 2011 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Following the crash of Swissair 111, United Airlines studied the accident and brought the elements of this onboard smoke/fire event into the recurrent training process.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 7, 2011 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Re: Standby instruments..."Do they not have them on a separate bus?"
Paul...they do, isolated and independent power sources depending on the manufacturer. I'm waiting to hear more. Ultimately, I think that these aviators will make us proud of our Western aviation culture and airmanship skills....like Sully. Regards to Russ and Glenn. RP

Posted by: Randall Phillips | April 7, 2011 11:24 AM    Report this comment

The tuning for the ILS in the stand-by gyro should be the last one tuned in the FMS, unless an override switch is pushed on the tuning panel (next to the audio panel on each side). Then the RMP can be used to tune the ILS. If the crew was able to use the MCDU (FMS control head) and "Activate the approach" the ILS for the departure runway should be tuned and the approach programmed. That wouldn't have helped much except to tune the stand-by display. BTW, the knob on the stand-by gyro is the good old-fashioned quick-erect. Gets the blue side up first thing in the morning.
Regarding a PAR, that requires very specialized radar equipment and a trained operator. A narrow azimuth and a narrow glideslope radar show the operator the aircraft position on a double display. I've done one in North Bay on the controllers request (for practice) in a BAe31. Pilot skill requirement is "Do what you're told!" and that's about all. When you look outside you will be crossing the numbers at 50'. He/She will tell you to flare, and when your wheel touch.
I think what the controller and pilot came together on was the best approach... Vector for a let-down over water (Y'all keep above 50' feet and don't do nuthin dumb! as Bob Stevens once said) and once in VMC, the controller did a wonderful job on the No-DG vector to the runway.

Posted by: Peter Buckley | April 7, 2011 12:37 PM    Report this comment

These guys, the United pilots, did a terrific job in getting airplane down quickly and safely. Where there's smoke there's fire. They would have never made it to Barksdale AFB to do a real PAR approach. Think about it. When you're stressed and under a heavy multi-task load, sometimes your nomenclature lags a little. Give credit to the ATC guys in New Orleans. I'm sure they knew what type of approach the pilots were thinking about. PAR, ASR, No Gyro.... It doesn't matter, everyone jumped in and did his job beautifully with no time for arm-chair quarterbacking.

Posted by: Dave Sandidge | April 7, 2011 1:13 PM    Report this comment

I experienced smoke in my Cessna 172, when the engine threw a rod, and that was as frightening as losing the engine. It wasn't a fire--just oil smoke--and it went away pretty quickly, so landing wasn't a problem. But I can easily imagine how high one's adrenalin rush would be, if there was a real fire in any aircraft. Kudos to those guys!


Posted by: Cary Alburn | April 7, 2011 1:37 PM    Report this comment

This story re-enforces my decision to go with the old style gauges rather than with the new “glass” cockpit in my homebuilt under construction. The old gauges may have more weight, but I'd have more peace of mind.

Posted by: Douglas Rodrigues | April 7, 2011 1:47 PM    Report this comment

After 36 years of airline flying and retired B747 "classic" driver I say "chapeau" to the pilots and the ATC team of the MSY happening.
The modern glass cockpits are a marvel to me.
Lots of info at your fingertips.But...no power no info's.
Sometimes I ponder if training like yesteryear with
f.i. ADF approach with limited panel or PAR/limited panel should be done on a regular basis.
Just think about it : not everyone is as good as the 497 crew plus MSY ATC.Not everybody is called "Capt Sully".Two hours later over the Rockies or the desert things could possibly have turned quite unhappy.
Also:crews can become tired!
Especially crews of today's aircraft.Only two persons to handle a frightfully complex aircraft in frightfully working conditions makes me frightfully pensive of today's airline flying.
And therefore we need pilots and controllers like in the New Orleans history at 100% level.
I hope the responsible people start thinking.
Direct.Fast. And good!
Hans Koeners / Spain

Posted by: Hans Koeners | April 7, 2011 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Reminds me of the old joke: Nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong… Everyone walked away from Flight 497, so it was a great landing, the kind I like to read about.

If you have a parachute, then an in-flight fire is your worst nightmare. If you don’t have a parachute and adequate altitude for deployment, then it’s the loss of your main spar at a wing root, but I digress…

It seem to remember being taught how to fly a tight spiral descent for only one reason: to get on the ground in a really big hurry if my airplane was on fire.

Glass is fine for people who enjoy that kind of thing, but the tendency of glass to lose most or all functionality in cascading failures when a major fault occurs seems reason-enough to me to continue to require independent mechanical backups (at least in any aircraft that has to be able to fly in IMC).

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | April 7, 2011 1:56 PM    Report this comment

If I remember correctly, during the mid 70's a United 727 departing Dever experienced smoke in the cockpit. The captain, over the objections of his crewmembers, elected to land immediatly without giving the engineer time to finish the checklists. The airplane landed hot, heavy and long. The tires blew (no antiskid because of disabled busses) and the airplane departed the side of the runway at the end, with minor damage.
The captain was severely critisized for not taking the time to do the checklists. If I remember right, he was fired.
This was the attitude of the time. It is good to see more of a "all's well that ends well attitude" now, even if everything doesn't end perfectly. Sometimes crews need to "make it up" as they go along, such as the UAL 747 at HNL and the DC-10 at SUX. Kuddos to all the scucessful crews! Their unappreciative passengers owe their lives to the quick thinking pilots. (and controllers)

Posted by: Dale Olsen | April 7, 2011 4:32 PM    Report this comment

Good evening:
I fly the ATR-72 -same electrical system philosophy as Airbus-, and it's for sure that the crew had available the standby instruments -regardles they are steam or glass- available with a full loss of the main elec. buses. The main point at this situation is that they should have had the possibility to actually see those sby. instruments in a cockpit full of smoke. In my opinion, they took the right decision: Smoke means you have to land ASAP -ASAP means ASAP- at the nearest airport regardless your landing weight -having in your mind what happened to the Swissair MD-11-. Great job performed by the pilots and controllers.

Posted by: Jose Pirla | April 7, 2011 4:49 PM    Report this comment

Gee, it seems we all went down the garden path on this one. I just read the preliminary NTSB report, and the report differs greatly from Paul B's article and indeed from the audio recording we all heard.

Apparently, there was no smoke in the cockpit but rather a computer decided to issue a smoke alert. The first officer's PFD went dark, but the Captain's continued to work just fine. There was an electrical problem - the lights in the passenger cabin went out and the intercom stopped working. Oh, and one of the passenger slides didn't inflate.

I guess it is appropriate for me to take back all the nice things I said about the pilot in this case. Apparently he declared an emergency and misinformed the ATC controller about the extent and nature of the emergency. He then proceeded to make a landing - while over gross landing weight (?) and failed to keep the plane on the runway. I can't imagine why he was talking about a PAR approach when he had a fully working set of instruments and radios.

I hate it when it seems I have jumped from one universe with one set of facts to another in no time at all.

I'm glad nobody was hurt.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | April 7, 2011 6:54 PM    Report this comment

It's fun to play the "what would you do if..." game, but it's disappointing to see speculation on crew actions based on news reports.

Remember, too, it's not the crew's duty to provide running commentary for the evening news but to request assistance based on their ESTIMATE of the WORST CASE scenario.

The crew reported a smoke "situation" (not smoke in the cockpit)and requested an immediate return to the nearest/longest runway based on the history of similar events.

According to the NTSB report, they were dealing with an "Avionics Smoke" alert in the ventilation system; potentially one of their most complex procedures. That checklist calls for shutting down all unnecessary equipment leaving the Capt with IFR EFIS BUT AT RISK FOR further degradation to a time-limited, battery-powered, VOR-only approach capability.

A lose of anti-skid, primary brakes, nose wheel steering and degraded flap/spoiler systems for landing is involved. Based on the fuel report they weren't over max ldg wt.

Heroes? I think the crew simply performed the A320 ECAM and UA emergency procedures for that situation in a professional manner - just as they were trained to do.

H2 - ret UA A320 instr

Posted by: Unknown | April 7, 2011 9:19 PM    Report this comment

Heroes? I think the crew simply performed the A320 ECAM and UA emergency procedures for that situation in a professional manner - just as they were trained to do.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 8, 2011 5:21 AM    Report this comment

paul B, can you post a link to that article? (flying the par)

Posted by: MICHAEL SULLIVAN | April 8, 2011 3:10 PM    Report this comment

OK, the link is at the bottom of the blog. Sorry you can post URLs yourself, but we have had to disable that function because of spam. Our spammers tend to be real live humans and that's the only way to defeat them.


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 8, 2011 4:20 PM    Report this comment

Unfortunately very few FAA facilities ever had PAR equipment. It has been available since the 40's and I personnally have used it to save aircraft when the pilot was unable to speak english but understood enough to take a heading. It is a great piece of equipment that only require the basic of instruments.

Posted by: DELBERT R MORRIS | April 8, 2011 6:11 PM    Report this comment

Re: Smoke in the cockpit. I've been there, don't want to go back. Thank God that I was still on the ground. I had an electrical fire. The visibility was zero/zero within 3 seconds, and I mean inches not feet or yards. It seemed to take forever to find the seat belt and canopy latches. Smoke, caustic fumes and blindness will put the maximum stress on anybody.
Kudos to the crew.

Sid Love

Posted by: Sid Love | April 10, 2011 8:45 PM    Report this comment

Yeah Sid, Many years ago, I was flying around IFR, at night in a C337; first night since annual inspection. In those days, all of the lighting was red. As soon as I leveled off, the cabin filled with heavy, acrid, eye burning smoke. I shut down everything electrical, just leaving the primary nav-com and the post lights in the primary panel as dim as I could and high-tailed it back to the airport, which, thankfully, was very close. It turned out to be a floodlight bulb that was changed during the inspection. It must have been a cheap non-PMA bulb and the red coating started to smoke when the bulb got hot. That was about thirty tears ago, but I'll never forget it!

Posted by: Steve Tobias | April 15, 2011 3:53 PM    Report this comment

Why is it that no one takes account of the agreement to permit just two pilots to operate plays a role in the reduction of safety? Three pilots are safer than two. No one offers the option of making an off airport landing as well when an electrical fire or any fire is present. The NASCAR pilots flying the Cessna 310 in Florida both died in an attempt to make it to an airport.

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