August 5, 2009
United First Officer Douglas Cochran Receives
ALPA’s Superior Airmanship Award
Broomfield, Colo., Pilot Recognized for Superior Airmanship Skills Exhibited After Electrical and Communications Failures in Crowded New York Airspace
WASHINGTON—The Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA), will recognize United Airlines (UAL) First Officer Douglas Cochran with the ALPA Superior Airmanship Award at its 2009 Air Safety Forum for his outstanding performance in preventing the catastrophic loss of United Flight 731, an Airbus A320 that suffered a near-total electrical failure moments after taking off from Newark Liberty Airport on Jan. 25, 2008.
“The actions of the pilots of United Flight 731 underscore the importance of having a trained, experienced flight crew in the cockpit, ready to act decisively at a moment’s notice,” said Capt. John Prater, ALPA’s president. “There were no procedures in place to tell this crew how to fly an ‘electric jet’ without a reliably functioning electrical system, but thanks to their quick thinking, they saved the lives of everyone on their flight and landed safely.”
Just seconds after Flight 731 made a normal takeoff from Newark, most of the flight displays in the “glass cockpit” went blank. Numerous cautions and warnings began to sound, and the remaining displays recycled, blinked erratically, or displayed conflicting information for the remainder of the flight. The radios and cockpit lights went out, and the A320’s landing gear failed to retract.
Left with only standby instruments and suspect flight controls, the crew immediately decided to return to the airport. But they were uncertain of the status of their landing gear, whether their hydraulic systems would function properly, and if they would have adequate braking once they landed.
The lack of reliable instruments and navigation displays, combined with no communications with the ground, put Flight 731 in a perilous situation from both a safety and a security standpoint. The aircraft’s transponder had stopped operating, and the pilots had no way to notify air traffic control of their problem. The pilots were flying the aircraft at low altitude through the dense New York airspace, headed toward downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
The crew decided to manually configure their landing gear and flaps and fly a regular pattern back to Newark, hoping ATC would recognize what they were doing. Despite the communications failure, controllers cleared a path for the crippled airliner. The crew made a safe emergency landing just seven minutes after taking off from the airport.
Subsequent investigation revealed a failure of the airplane’s AC 1 electrical bus, one of two primary electrical distribution systems for the airplane. The AC 1 bus fault caused a number of other electrical systems on the aircraft to lose power. Because similar failures have occurred on other A320s, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that A320 operators modify their fleets to eliminate the problem and provide additional training and procedures to help pilots handle similar electrical failures in the future.
“Safety throughout the years has been the benchmark of United pilots, and First Officer Cochran’s ability to act and create ‘out-of-the-box’ procedures to overcome the serious challenges that were before him is testament to the abilities and experience the flying public has come to expect from United pilots,” said Capt. Steve Wallach, chairman of the United Master Executive Council of ALPA. “First Officer Cochran’s calm, collected thinking and actions averted a potential disaster. Speaking on behalf of all United pilots, I’m proud to be flying with him.”
This award will be presented on August 6 at ALPA’s 55th Air Safety Week Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C. ALPA will also honor Cochran’s colleague, Capt. Everett “Ross” Miller, with a Superior Airmanship Award for his critically important contributions to the successful outcome of this harrowing event.
Founded in 1931, ALPA is the world’s largest pilots union, representing nearly 54,000 pilots at 36 airlines in the United States and Canada.
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