Qantas crew faced 54 alarms

2010-11-18 22:28

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.


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.

  • Ozman - 2010-11-19 06:05

    I always say – If it’s not a Boeing..... I’m not going.

      paulus.nel - 2010-11-19 08:28

      I believe Airbus is made by boeing.

      Arno - 2010-11-19 09:12

      @paulus - Really! and is BMW made by Mercedes Benz

      stuart.steedman - 2010-11-19 09:14

      Airbus is made by Airbus, a European company. Boeing is made by Boeing Aerospace, an American company. The one does not make the other

      Bradley - 2010-11-19 09:20

      paulus.nel : Airbus and Boeing are two competing companies

      swimma - 2010-12-02 10:58

      @paulus.nel HA HA HA. Perhaps a Google search would be in order before you make any more comments?

  • Lisaman - 2010-11-19 08:10

    Thank Goodness faults can be corrected from that incident and no loss of life - amazing!!

  • Gorilla - 2010-11-19 08:35

    Says a lot about the quality of the Quantas pilots..

  • derek55 - 2010-11-19 09:09

    It is interesting to note that the entire fleet of Concordes were grounded and subsequently removed from service due to an incident which caused the first fatal accident involving these aircraft. The incident was caused by a foreign object lying on a runway dropped by another aircraft. No fault of Concorde design, it's systems or engines. Will the same happen to the entire commercial fleet of A380s as it appears that these aircraft have a major design fault, and if not, why not?

      Jou-Ma - 2010-11-19 12:23

      The Concorde was not grounded due to the crash, but rather to the economic backlash the crash had on passenger numbers. Also, the Concorde flew since 1976, and to maintain such an old aircraft or to replace\strengthen the fueselage did not make economic sense. The airbus, on the other hand, is a young aircraft, and it would make good sense to make the neccessary mods to ensure passenger safety.

  • stuart.steedman - 2010-11-19 09:16

    Also important to note that the engines are made completely seperate to the aircraft. Blaming Airbus for problems with their Rolls-Royce engines is like blaming Ford for a puncture on your Dunlop tyres.

      derek55 - 2010-11-19 15:38

      True in a sense, but if my Ford's engine blew up then the whole car would burn out and most likely the driver and passengers with it. It's like a Delta/Chevrolet dealer trying to tell me the other day that the factory fitted aircon was supplied by an independent manufacturer and therefore not part of the car.

  • Deon - 2010-11-19 11:09

    I just believe that with the amount of money involved & pressure to get the aircrafts delived to customers, vital safety checks are either not performed properly or are "overlooked". Big money is spent on these planes & if it is not flying, more money is being lost by the owners. How safe are we when flying today ????

      Dina - 2010-11-19 13:15

      Well you know the saying: flying is the safest way to fly .....

  • AraBilly - 2010-11-19 18:46

    3 Cheers for the amount of competent pilots on the same flight! All they had to do was get the plane on the ground, which they did right and for that they are congatulated. BUT... if ther were only the normal compliment of pilots on the flight, would they have been able to deal with the flood of warnings tec. I hope NG Aircraft ACCIDENT investigations does a program opn this. ALSO... I would like to hear Airbus defence on this - seems to me a whole bunch of thngs went wrong that should not have ... 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,...... Seems to me with 500+ lives at stake per flight, this needs to be investigated. Also, what would happen I arrive at the door of the A380 , recognised it and say to the ailrine... sorry, I think I'll take the next one. ABout time passengers put their worries into action. Risking 500+ lives and then fixing the problems with post MORTEMS so to speak, seems to be the industry standard. Everytime they say on NG .. these people did not lose their lives in vain... I wanna shudder, 'cos this could be me and you that thay expend to make flying safer!

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