Paul Murphy / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS Just minutes after United Flight 497 took off from New Orleans this morning loaded with fuel for a flight to San Francisco, the pilot realized the plane had problems.
'Pilot called back to the tower and said they had a report of smoke in the cockpit. The airport sent its fire trucks out to the runway to prepare for the aircraft landing,' said airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut.
One of the passengers, Fonville Winans, said he opened his eyes after dozing off for a few minutes and noticed they were headed back to New Orleans.
'Then the plane was a little shaky. And then I looked again, and I could see we were kinda coming down, so something's up,' he said.
Winans said he didn't hear any announcement, but adds everybody seemed to know there was a problem.
'When we landed, people clapped.'
And the landing was a little rough.
'It was like he put on the brakes real quick and then he turned off to the left,' Winans said.
Wilcut said, 'And on landing they actually did go off the runway. The nose wheel came off the edge of the runway.'
An Associated Press reporter who was on board said once the plane was on the ground, flight attendants shouted: 'Leave everything. Get out!' Passengers slid down the emergency chutes to evacuate.
'On the way out of the plane it was a little intense. People don't know what's happening, and they just kind of like want to get off. 'Is this thing going to blow up?' You know, what's happening? So there for a minute it was a little intense,' Winans said. No one was reportedly seriously injured, but the Associated Press says some passengers went to an ambulance for minor cuts and scrapes, and some were understandably shaken.
'One lady was really torn up and crying I saw on the ground,' Winans said.
A copilot, Ronald Lee Young, told passengers that the crew landed on backup systems with minimal steering and braking ability.
'He said that they had lost avionics and they had trouble with the electronic gear and having trouble controlling the plane, but they were able to get it on the ground, and they were just thankful that they got us down safely,' Winans said.
The plane had 100 passengers and a crew of five people. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating to see what went wrong and why.