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11.15.10

Forty-Five Minutes of Chaos in the Sky

Flying shrapnel, fuel leaks, and an exploded engine nearly crashed the Qantas Airbus 380 in Singapore recently. Aviation expert Clive Irving reveals new details on what the pilots overcame.

The pilots of the Qantas Airbus A380 crippled by an engine explosion 10 days ago wrestled with a nightmare series of failures of the aircraft’s systems as they aborted their flight and headed back to Singapore. What has so far been passed off as a straightforward, by-the-book response to an engine emergency came very close, in fact, to being one of the world’s worst air disasters.

The authoritative magazine Aviation Week reports today that “questions are emerging about the design and vulnerability to serious malfunction of both the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine and the Airbus A380 airframe.”

In the current security climate, the first loss of a superjumbo would doubtless have provoked a wildfire of suspicion that a bomb was involved.

Qantas A380 Sustained Worse Damage Than First Thought In addition to the Aviation Week report, I can reveal that the situation on the flight deck during the 45 minutes it took to land the A380 demanded the full efforts of not only the two regular pilots but also of three other pilots who, luckily, were sitting in the jump seats behind them, as both observers and as part of their training. Their performance was a feat of airmanship equal to that of Captain Sully Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson.

These are some of the challenges they faced:

Flying shrapnel from the Rolls Royce engine penetrated two fuel tanks on the left wing immediately above the engine. ( Video shot by a passenger shows the exit holes of this shrapnel in the upper wing.)

Because they were punctured, both tanks began leaking large amounts of fuel. The system used to transfer fuel to other tanks was compromised by the damage.

The engine to the left of the engine that exploded was also damaged by debris but the pilots were unable to shut it down, as required for safety, because the engine-control system failed. Because of this, the fire-control system for that engine could not be engaged and the engine presented a hazardous situation beyond the pilot’s control. (This engine continued to run until after fire crews on the ground covered it with foam.)

Some of the critical control surfaces were compromised by the failure of one of the airplane’s two hydraulic systems. Indeed, as they approached the runway at Singapore for their landing, the pilots had to lower the landing gear manually because the hydraulics system was not available.

The presence of video shot by passengers is a vital new window on airplane emergencies that calls into question the candor so far of both Qantas and Airbus about the seriousness of this incident. The video revealing the shrapnel damage also showed one of the holes growing in size as the crisis mounted. Another video shot during the A380’s touchdown shows smoke still pouring from the damaged engine, suggesting a continuing oil fire.

Clive Irving: Should We Be Scared of the Superjumbo Jet?Including the 26 crew members, there were 466 people aboard Flight 32. The engine exploded four minutes after takeoff, while the engines were on full power for a climb to cruise altitude, which would normally take about 45 minutes. This was a stroke of luck. Had the explosion happened with the A380 out over the ocean, hours away from being able to make an emergency landing, the series of failures in the airplane’s systems could have eventually been fatal.

In the current security climate, the first loss of a superjumbo would doubtless have provoked a wildfire of suspicion that a bomb was involved. This would have been among the largest losses of life in a single airplane. (The largest loss of life in any incident was at Tenerife in 1977 when two Boeing 747s collided in fog, killing 583 people.)

As it is, the new picture of the critical 45 minutes in the life of Flight 32 demands reassurances from both Rolls Royce and Airbus that what Rolls has identified as the failure of a “specific component in the turbine area” is fully understood and that no A380 is flying that could experience a similar emergency.

Australia’s Air Transport Safety Bureau has promised a preliminary report by early December. There are 38 A380s flying and 21 are powered by the Rolls Royce Trent engine that is the subject of this investigation. Eleven are operated by Singapore Airlines, six by Qantas, and three by Lufthansa. Only Qantas has grounded its A380 fleet.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. Find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.