NEWARK, N.J. – As United Flight 731 climbed out of Newark with 107 people aboard, the pilot and first officer were startled to find screens that display crucial navigational information were blank or unreadable and radios were dead.
They had no way to communicate with air traffic controllers or detect other planes around them in the New York City area’s crowded airspace.
“I made a comment to the captain about steering clear of New York City, not wanting to get shot down by (Air Force) fighters,” first officer Douglas Cochran later told investigators. He wasn’t joking: “We both felt an extreme urgency to get this aircraft on the ground as soon as possible.”
Within minutes, Cochran and the captain had turned around and safely landed the Denver-bound Airbus A320 at the Newark airport. Cochran later told investigators that clear weather might have been the only thing that saved them from a crash.
The January 2008 emergency wasn’t the first such multiple electrical failure in what is known as the Airbus A320 family of aircraft, and it wasn’t the last, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press. More than 50 episodes involving the planes, which first went into service more than two decades ago, have been reported.
And it could be another few years before the last of the thousands of narrow-body, twin-engine jets in use in the U.S. and overseas are modified to counteract the problem. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an order in 2010 giving U.S. airlines four years to make the fixes. The FAA’s European counterpart did the same thing in 2009.
While no accidents have been blamed on the problem, the pilots union in the U.S. wanted the FAA to give airlines just two years to comply, but the FAA rejected that.
FAA spokeswoman Allison Duquette said the four-year window was determined by the estimated 46 hours required to fix each jet. Safety regulators put the cost at $6,000 per plane.
France-based Airbus told NTSB investigators in 2008 that 49 electrical failures similar to the Newark emergency happened on its planes in the U.S. and abroad before that episode. Nearly half involved the loss of at least five of six cockpit displays.
Also, pilots who post to a website operated by NASA have described at least seven more instances of multiple electrical failure that forced them to abort takeoffs or make unscheduled landings.
Rudy Canto, director of flight operations-technical for Airbus Americas, said that temporary electrical failures in all makes of jets aren’t uncommon and that all planes have backup systems – as well as backups to the backups – to handle those situations.
But Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot since 1990 who has written extensively on aviation safety for www.askthepilot.com, said he has never experienced anything similar to the multiple failures described by Cochran and others.
“I can’t even recall a case of losing more than a single non-critical instrument, so the idea of all critical flight displays going out at once is pretty radical,” Smith said.
It isn’t known how many of the 633 A320-series jets operated by U.S. carriers are flying without the required modification because airlines do not have to notify the FAA about each one. United said it has completed work on about 90 percent of its fleet of 152 Airbuses covered by the FAA’s directive, and Delta said it has made the fix on 124 of its 126 planes. USAirways said it has fixed “more than 60 percent” of its 189 affected Airbuses.
A 2006 failure described by Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch was similarly alarming. Ninety minutes into an EasyJet flight from Spain to England, electronic instrument displays and radio communications went dead. Then the Airbus stopped sending radar signals for 10 minutes.
The plane landed safely in England with the pilots trying to reach the control tower with cellphones.
While the NTSB has called the electrical failures “a significant safety risk,” long gaps between when a safety recommendation is issued and when airlines must carry it out are common, said an investigator in the Flight 731 probe.
“I would love for it to be done immediately as a safety protocol, but that can’t happen,” said Scott Warren, team leader of an NTSB group that investigates electrical and hydraulic failures. “That puts a huge burden on the operators to ground the planes every time a safety recommendation is made. So you have to evaluate whether it makes sense to wait a month, two months, four months, or more.”