April 4, 2011 — -- The pilots of a United Airlines flight that lost power in all its instruments today were able to return to the airport and land safely, guided by air traffic controllers, cockpit tapes show.
The potential disaster occurred just three days after pilots of a Southwest Airlines jet were able to get the plane safely on the ground even though a section of the top of the fuselage ripped off in mid-flight.
United Airlines Flight 497, an Airbus A-320 with 106 passengers and crew onboard, had just taken off from New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport today when the power onboard the plane went out, and the plane began to vibrate.
Passengers said the pilot was speaking on the public address system greeting them and briefing them about the flight when he stopped in midsentence.
"At the beginning it seemed like everything was routine and then a few minutes into the flight things started to change," said Dr. Ramin Buigui who was sitting in seat 18-D.
The startled passengers had no idea what was about to unfold in the cockpit. In recordings made by liveatc.net, the pilots calmly reported smoke in the cockpit.
"United 497, we are declaring an emergency," one pilot told air traffic controllers.
Initially it appeared the problem was solely the smell of smoke in the cockpit. Air traffic controllers started working on returning the plane to the New Orleans Airport.
Then, with alarms sounding in the background, the United pilots told air traffic controllers the situation had quickly deteriorated in the cockpit.
"United 497, we've lost all our instruments," a pilot said.
Essentially flying blind, the pilots were in a dire situation with no way of getting back to the airport on their own.
Air traffic controllers responded, telling the pilots they will guide them down by giving turn-by-turn navigation over the two-way radio.
"United 497, just continue the left turn, I will tell you when to stop, sir," an air traffic controller told the crippled airplane.
The pilots began using landmarks, like the Mississippi River, to tell air traffic controllers what they could see and where they believed they were.
"We've got water contact," the pilots said. "What vector are we from the airport?"
Knowing that without power, they will have trouble stopping and steering when they land back in New Orleans, the pilots requested the longest runway.
What they did not know was that the longest runway was closed for construction. Quickly, crews began clearing trucks and traffic cones off that runway.
"We need three minutes to get the runway clear," one of the ground crews on the runway said.
In a mad dash, construction vehicles were moved off the runway and cones were picked up.
After talking the pilots back to the airport for nearly 10 minutes, an air traffic controller gave United 497 clearance to land and asks an ominous question.
"You going to make it sir?" the controller asked the pilots.
The answer: "Yes."
When the Airbus touched down, just as the pilots had feared, they had minimal braking and steering power. The plane, full of fuel for the flight to San Francisco, ran off the side of the runway, blowing the front tire and digging into muddy grass.
After the plane came to a stop, passengers said, flight attendants began shouting instructions: "Leave everything! Get out!"
Emergency slides were used to evacuate the plane.
It's at that moment that passengers ran for safety.
"It's scary up until the point I got off the plane and started running," passenger Jonathan Woods said. "I didn't know how much fuel was on the plane is what worried me."
Woods credited the two United pilots for getting them on the ground alive.
In a statement to ABC News, United said there were no reported injuries and the passengers were put onto other flights.
Hours after the emergency landing, the United Airbus remained off the runway with its front tire dug deep into the mud.