Qantas crew faced 54 alarms

2010-11-18 22:28
The engine that failed on a Qantas A380 is removed from the plane at Singapore Airport in Singapore.. (AP Photo/Australian Transport Safety Bureau)

The engine that failed on a Qantas A380 is removed from the plane at Singapore Airport in Singapore.. (AP Photo/Australian Transport Safety Bureau)

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Washington - Nobody trains for chaos like this. Far above the ocean, an engine bigger than a sports utility vehicle had disintegrated, blasting shrapnel holes in the passenger jet's wing.

Then an overwhelming flood of computer alarms warned the pilots that critical systems might be failing.

Two weeks after the pilots somehow landed their Qantas jet and its 450 passengers, their two-hour cockpit drama was described on Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press by the deputy president of the Australian and International Pilots Association.

"The number of failures is unprecedented," said Richard Woodward, a fellow Qantas A380 pilot who has spoken to all five pilots. "There is probably a one in 100 million chance to have all that go wrong."

But it did.

Engine pieces sliced electric cables and hydraulic lines in the wing.

The wing's forward spar - one of the beams that attaches it to the plane - was damaged as well. And the wing's two fuel tanks were punctured.

As fuel leaked out, a growing imbalance was created between the left and right sides of the plane, Woodward said.

Tail-heavy

The electrical power problems prevented the pilots from pumping fuel forward from tanks in the tail. The plane became tail-heavy.

That may have posed the greatest risk, safety experts said. If the plane went too far out of balance, it would lose lift, stall and crash.

And then there was the incredible stream of computer messages, 54 in all, alerting them to system failures or warning of impending failures.

One warned that a ram air turbine - a backup power supply - was about to deploy, although that never did happen, Woodward said. The message was especially worrisome because the system deploys only when main power systems are lost, he said.

The smaller backup supply is able only to power vital aircraft systems.

That's "the last thing you need in that kind of situation," he said.

The pilots watched as the screens filled, only to be replaced by new screens with warnings, he said.

Five pilots

"I don't think any crew in the world would have been trained to deal with the number of different issues this crew faced," Woodward said.

As luck would have it, there were five experienced pilots - including three captains - aboard the plane. The flight's captain, Richard de Crespigny, was being given his annual check ride - a test of his piloting skills - by another captain.

That man was himself being evaluated by a third captain. There were also first and second officers, part of the normal three-pilot team.

One concentrated on flying the plane, while the others dealt with the computer alarms and made announcements to the passengers, some of whom said they were frantically pointing to flames streaming from the engine.

Working flat-out, it took 50 minutes for the pilots to prioritise and work through each of the messages - necessary steps to determine the status of the plane.

Attention since the November 4 incident has focused on the Airbus 380's damaged Rolls Royce engines. As many as half of the 80 Rolls-Royce engines that power A380s, the world's largest passenger jet, may need to be replaced, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said on Thursday.

The 40 potentially faulty engines would need to be replaced with new engines while the fault is fixed, raising the spectre of engine shortages that could delay future deliveries of the seven-storey-tall passenger jet.

Qantas has grounded its fleet of six A380s.

Airpcraft are supposed to be designed with redundancy so that if one part or system fails, there is still another to perform the same function. That didn't always happen in this case, safety experts say.

"The circumstances around this accident will certainly cause the regulatory authorities to take a long and hard look at a number of certification issues," said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and an expert on aircraft maintenance.

- AP

Read more on:    airbus  |  rolls royce  |  qantas  |  australia  |  air travel
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