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April 08, 2011

So How Well Does An Airbus A320 Handle When The Control System Fails? (tmi3rd)

Well, the crew of United 497 got to find out the hard way as they tried to leave Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans on Tuesday. The A320 was scheduled to head to San Francisco, but returned rather abruptly to New Orleans after the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit. They also subsequently lost their instruments in the aircraft (save for the magnetic compass and the attitude indicator), as well as their primary flight controls.

First of all, a little background on the A320, made by EADS/Airbus (a European conglomerate). They're roughly comparable in size to Boeing's 737, and unlike later models of Airbus aircraft, there is a mechanical/hydraulic set of flight controls as a backup.

What happened on Tuesday (as you can hear from the audio at the link) was a situation that could very easily have turned into a disaster. There were 106 people on board that plane, and the pilots reported 32,000 pounds of fuel on board as they were returning (enough to make a very pretty fireball). Instead, what you had was an eerie calm on the recording between the MSY tower (the code for New Orleans' major airfield) and UAL 497. Given the fact that you didn't hear about it on the news very much, the plane made it back to MSY and ultimately wound up in the grass adjacent to runway 19. There were no injuries.

So here's the link to the story at the New Orleans Times-Picayune... unfortunately, my blog-fu isn't good enough to figure out how to embed the audio. At the link, there's a graphic as well of the flight path and timeline, as well as a transcript.

It's amazing to hear how well these guys keep it together. I'd love to hear CDR M's take on this (as an aviator) or any of our resident pilots, particularly any with some time in the A320. I can't imagine that that plane handles all that well as a side-sticker with the flight computers down for the count. Also, it's hard to describe just how lonely a feeling it is when you need a radar steer to get home... and just how comforting it is to have a calm controller to talk to.

So, a hats-off to everyone involved in this. It's nice to have some good news for once.

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posted by Open Blogger at 10:08 PM

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