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United Plane Flew Despite Smoke, Fumes in Cockpit

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United allowed a plane to fly despite known safety issues stemming from a malfunctioning windshield heater. According to the Associated Press (AP), “A United Airlines plane with 112 people aboard was allowed to take off last May without repairs despite indications during two previous flights that the cockpit window was overheating, a condition long known to cause fires.”

“The Boeing 757 was about 30 minutes into a flight from New York to San Francisco, and had just leveled off at 36,000 feet, when pilots said they heard a hissing noise followed seconds later by 14- to 16-inch flames shooting from the cockpit window near the captain.” The windshield shattered shortly before the plane made an emergency landing in Washington, D.C.

The pilot who flew the plane earlier that day reported smelling fumes in the cockpit, and showed United mechanics that an electrical connection in the windshield was charred and hot. The plane actually made an emergency landing the previous day due to smoke and fumes in the cockpit.

However, the mechanic who observed the issue said he cleared the plane for travel because, according to the AP, “United’s maintenance manual says planes can be flown another 50 hours after a blackened or burned window heater electrical connector had been found.”

The issue of faulty cockpit wiring in Boeing aircraft is not a new one, however, and has actually been known to the National Transportation Safety Board since 2004. Last June, just weeks after the United incident (which was only reported just now), the FAA launched a full-scale investigation of the problem, covering some 1,200 airplanes. The problem is actually due to loose screws that can chafe wires and cause electrical arcing and, potentially, fires. Airlines were told to replace the windshields if defects were discovered.

Of course, in the United case, the question is why the plane was allowed to fly despite seemingly obvious signs of a serious safety issue. United did inspect the plane per its maintenance manual, but still—smoke? Fumes? And the plane still flew? Probably a good thing that United has since made “enhancements” to its maintenance program, as a spokesperson told the AP.

Readers, should the FAA have ordered the faulty windshields to be replaced sooner?

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