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 USAF fighters," first officer Douglas Cochran told investigators.
Within minutes, Cochran and the captain had turned around and safely landed the Airbus A320 at the Newark airport. Cochran told investigators that clear weather might have been the only thing that saved them from a crash.
The January 2008 emergency was far from the first such multiple electrical failure in 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 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 United States 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.
While no accidents have been blamed on the problem, the pilots union in the United States wanted the FAA to give airlines just two years to comply. Aviation safety consultant Douglas Moss said the FAA should have acted a lot more quickly.
"These things cost money and the industry is in bad shape, so you have the economics thrown into it. But if the end result is higher airfares and higher cost of transportation, then that is the price we have to pay to ensure a safe transport system," said Moss.
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.
The Airbus A320 family includes the A318, A319, A320 and A321 models — passenger jets with 100 to 220 seats.
Rudy Canto, director of flight operations-technical for Airbus Americas, said 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. New Airbus models are equipped with an automatic power switchover to counteract failures like the one at Newark, Canto said.
It isn't known how many of the 633 A320-series jets operated by U.S. carriers are flying without the 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 modified "more than 60 percent" of its 189 affected Airbuses.
"Air Canada, Jet Blue, Delta, Frontier, Spirit, United and US Airways fly the A320 series in and out of our airport,'' said Janet Zink, Tampa International Airport's communications director. "We don't keep track of how many individual jets of that series use the airport each day, but I can tell you A320s represent about 21.5 percent of our scheduled 6,272 departures for the month of August. That's 1,351 departures.''
On the Newark flight, Cochran told investigators, nearly all cockpit indicators and gauges were lost, including his standby attitude indicator, a display that enables pilots to keep a plane at the correct angle. His primary attitude indicator also failed, but re-emerged just before landing.
In the Newark tower, a chilling thought occurred to controllers as Flight 731 circled back without warning: Was this another 9/11 about to unfold?
"You could see him making a hard right and then another turn; he's deviating off his course and loaded with fuel," a controller working that day recalled. "He turned back east and was going right toward New York, and I thought, 'Oh, here we go again.' "