American Airlines Airbus A321 Diverts To Abilene With Reported Smoke In Cockpit

An American Airlines A321-200 was forced make an emergency landing at Abilene regional airport, Texas on Wednesday (21/08/19) due to smoke in the cockpit.

AA A321 take-off
Photo: AA flight en route New York diverted due to smoke in the cockpit. Photo: Alan Wilson [CC BY-SA 2.0] via flickr
Flight AA-4 was halfway between Los Angeles to New York when the cockpit began to fill up with smoke. Writes Aviation Herald the airliner was traveling at FL330 and was 30 miles west of Abilene when the crew declared an emergency. The pilot notified air traffic control and was given vectors to land at the general aviation airfield.

The Airbus A321 (registration N112AN), which had taken off from Los Angeles at 11:12 PDT, landed 15 minutes after crew discussions with ATC at 15:43 CDT. Despite having emergency services in attendance, no-one was reported to be injured.

No cause of the smoke contamination was apparent. However, the aircraft was evacuated on the runway as a precaution. American canceled the remaining leg of the flight. Passengers were later delivered to JFK on another plane.

Thermal imaging

According to KTXS, the Abilene fire department remained on the scene to investigate the flight crew’s claims of smoke. A spokeswoman for AFD said the firefighters deployed thermal imagining equipment in the search for a significant heat source in the cockpit but came up with nothing.

AA A321 landing
Thermal imaging used to determine heat source. Photo: Venkat Mangudi [CC BY 2.0] via flickr
One passenger speaking after the event said,

Everyone was obviously very tense because the plane was descending really fast and we were told that there would be fire following us.”

Writes KTXS, American Airlines issued a statement shortly afterward, saying,

American Airlines flight 4 from Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (JFK) diverted to Abilene (ABI) due to an odor in the cockpit. The flight landed safely at 3:41 p.m. local time. Our maintenance team is troubleshooting the issue.”

What else causes smoke in the cockpit?

Smoke witnessed in the cabins and cockpit of an aircraft is usually an oil-based fume rather than a plume of combustible material. However, open fires have been known to occur mid-flight; some serious enough to cause structural deformations and accidents.

AA A321 landing
Cause of smoke determined to be faulty cockpit fan. Photo: Tomás Del Coro from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0] via flickr
A breach in the hull or a faulty ventilation duct may introduce smoke and fumes into the cabin area. A fire within a pressure hull will produce smoke that rises into the cabin before cooling down.

Air conditioning systems on most modern planes are designed to purge any contaminants from the air. Thus, switching off the AC when smoke is witnessed in the cabin can worsen the problem.

According to Skybrary, the following are typical causes of cabin smoke:

  • Failure and malfunctions of electrical equipment
  • Overheating of electrical and mechanical equipment due to malfunctions of control systems
  • Leakage of hot air from pneumatic ducts
  • Spillage of mechanical fluids on hot surfaces
  • Spillage of foodstuffs on hot galley ovens (Read: Air Transat Airbus A330 Returns To Paris Following Galley Oven Smoke)
  • Ground impact fires

American Airlines told us that following its investigation of the cause of the cabin smoke,

The issue was rectified the same day, and the aircraft returned to service. It was a faulty fan in the cockpit.