Qantas keeps its head above water despite Titanic near-miss
Illustration: Michael Mucci
The Airbus A380 represents the pinnacle of global aviation. It is especially the jewel in the crown in Singapore, where the government-owned Singapore Airlines was the launch customer. But when an A380 was coming in to land at Singapore's Changi International Airport on the morning of November 4, the emergency ground crews were filled with trepidation. This was a disaster waiting to happen. This A380 was the Nancy Bird Walton, the flagship of the Qantas fleet.
All the ingredients were in place for the 90th anniversary of Qantas to be marked by a catastrophe. I don't think many people, outside the experts, realise how close it came to a spectacular end to Qantas's brilliant run as the world's safest major airline.
Flight QF32, Singapore to Sydney, departing at 9.30am, was in distress just six minutes into the flight when the number two engine blew up. The plane was put into a circle pattern over open water for more than an hour as the five-member flight crew worked furiously on diagnostic checks to see what controls they had and what had been lost.
The hydraulics system was badly compromised. There was total loss of hydraulic fluid in the Green system, while the Yellow system remained intact. There was an open gash in the wing, with a fuel leak, and a second massive leak in a mid fuel tank. The left inner tank was also leaking. Part of the fuel distribution system had ceased to function, so fuel imbalances could not be fixed, or fuel jettisoned from the tail tank. It meant they would not be able to balance the aircraft properly for landing.
There was more: a hole in the upper wing surface; damage to leading edge slats on the wings; only partial use of speed brakes; shrapnel damage to some wing flaps. The pilot was unable to shut down the number one engine using the fire switch, thus no fire protection was available for that engine. The auto-brakes were compromised. The anti-skid mechanism was gone. One of the two engines that could provide reverse-thrust on landing was no longer operating.
The pilot, Richard Champion de Crespigny - remember that name - was going to have to battle the plane down with numerous elements inoperable that would have stabilised the aircraft. One tilt of the wings, one crumpling landing gear, one burning tyre, and sparks would shower on the tarmac. With an open and leaking fuel tank, sparks could create a fireball.
Four hundred and fifty-nine dead. The airline equivalent of the Titanic.
The crew decided to get the plane down rather than wait. They were concerned by the plane's worsening lateral imbalance. With so many pieces missing, the captain would need almost every metre of the runway, and fuel would be leaking throughout. The plane still had 80 tonnes of fuel. It was overweight. It would also have to make a high-speed landing. Every emergency crew at Changi was being positioned to lay down fire-retarding foam.
At the moment of crisis, the largest, most complex plane ever created was dependent on a pilot to get it down intact. By the time Captain de Crespigny brought the plane to a halt, he had just 120 metres of tarmac to spare. A reconstruction of events would make a compelling documentary. Several important and perhaps unappreciated elements emerge from this story:
- This was not a problem of Qantas's making. It was a new jet, with new engines, all tests made and all systems checked. This problem was created in the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby where the Trent 900 engine was manufactured. Vested interests have conflated this incident into a wider industrial argument about the standards of Qantas maintenance. The two issues have nothing to do with each other.
- Disaster was avoided by the one thing Qantas did control - the training and quality of the flight crew. They were outstanding. Qantas maintains world-best-practice in training.
- While Qantas has grounded its A380s, Singapore Airlines, which flies the same aircraft with the same engines, temporarily grounded three A380s to replace engines, but kept eight of its 11 A380s in the air. Singapore Airlines enjoys a reputation as one of the world's best airlines.
- This abundance of caution by Qantas would be partly caused by an unhappy spate of in-flight mechanical incidents requiring aircraft to turn back. All airlines suffer grounded flights, and sometimes these come in clusters. On Friday, a Virgin Blue flight made an emergency landing in Melbourne. But the Australian media is on a constant drip-feed of negative information about safety at Qantas as part of a union campaign against maintenance being outsourced overseas.
- The most detailed account of the QF32 incident appeared anonymously on the internet before any news stories or detailed statements from Qantas. It turned out to be accurate, more evidence that the internet is making the world more transparent even amid all the disinformation that also pours through cyberspace.
- The Airbus A380 is a commercial aviation engineering project of unprecedented ambition. In a system so large and complex the number of things that can go wrong is also large. Perhaps the A380, with its vast bulk, is operating closer to the limits of technology than we first understood.
I've never been on an A380 but I won't blink when the time comes. I look forward to it. Every time we step into a motor vehicle, or ride a bicycle into traffic, we have already done a risk/reward assessment. It's no different with planes, except that the odds are still better in the air.