January 5, 2011
We’re still pretty blown away by this story. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has released its preliminary report on what happened shortly after takeoff on November 4, 2010, when the left inboard Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine of Qantas flight QF32, an Airbus A380 outbound from Singapore, went kablooey (or technically, suffered an “uncontained failure of an intermediate pressure turbine disc”). Fortunately, there were two extra, highly experienced pilots on the flight deck overseeing check rides, and this brought the combined experience of all five crew to 71,000 flight hours and 14o years.
Debris flying from the engine left it totaled and punctured the wing, which resulted in fuel leaks that began to change the airplane’s center of gravity, triggering a cascade of other alarms in the cockpit. Luckily, none of the flying metal breached the fuselage, as shown in an image, below, from the report. Two people on the Indonesian island of Batam sustained minor injuries from falling debris.
As the pilots sorted through and prioritized dozens of alarms, they maintained a racetrack holding pattern for almost two hours over the ocean east of Singapore. The jet had lost both the ability to dump fuel and to transfer fuel between tanks. That meant that a fuel load imbalance in the wings would eventually make the airplane impossible to control. A competing problem was that the airplane was still 50 tons over its maximum allowable landing weight. Add to all this: The leading edge slats had failed, so the huge airplane would have to land about 40 miles an hour faster than usual. With a bit more flying time to burn off fuel, and with help from a computer program that predicted their landing distance given their new circumstances, the pilots decided to take their chances and land heavy and fast before the fuel imbalance became critical.
When the airplane touched down, it rolled two full miles down the runway. The tires blew, and brake temperatures shot up to 900 degrees. Among many interesting photos in the report, one shows wiring, right, severed by the initial debris event, inside the wing. This created difficulties with an otherwise healthy left outboard engine. On the ground, the crew was unable to shut down that engine, which continued to run for five hours after the airplane came to a halt. With fuel gushing down onto the roasting hot brakes, the crew determined that the safest place for passengers was on board. But with no power to run the air conditioning, the midday Singapore sun made the cabin almost as warm as the brakes. After an hour, it was safe for passengers to disembark. A video embedded in this Royal Aeronautical Society interview with David Evans, the cool-headed supervising check captain on the flight, shows how fire crews finally handled things the old fashioned way, and sprayed retardant foam into the outboard engine to shut it down. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome (back) to Singapore.”