concorde

A freeze-frame from a video of the Concorde crash.

If there is one incident top of mind for Qantas and other A380 operators today it is the Air France Concorde disaster of July 25, 2000, when debris punctured a fuel tank on takeoff from Paris and it crashed with the loss of all 109 people on board and killed a further four on the ground.

The wing of the Qantas A380 was pierced by debris from its disintegrating No.2 engine over Indonesia, forcing the jet to return to Singapore for an emergency landing.  Fuel leaked from the damaged wing as it returned to Changi Airport, but there was no fire and no disaster.

In fact, the Qantas crew, and operational support in Sydney, acquitted themselves brilliantly, dealing with a jet that was in a lot more trouble than just losing one engine.

Thanks to social media, we know how dire the situation was.

Parts of the No.2 engine ripped through the wing above, apparently causing either fuel lines, or the wing fuel tankage itself, to leak.

The largest piece of debris, probably a turbine blade, also managed to block or cut control messages to the outboard No,1 engine.

The debris also cut half of the hydraulic control capability of the A380, causing the jet to rely on gravity rather than power to lower all or part of its undercarriage into the landing position, and the photos imply that the jet, with 466 people on board, was landed without the wing slats deployed, at least in part.

All of which made a passing reference to a possible design fault in the jet, never mind the engine, by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce on Radio 3AW this morning  an exercise in understatement.

Qantas has a flagship jet vulnerable to wing damage from an engine failure that is supposed never to happen under design rules intended to avoid “uncontained” disintegrations in which debris can puncture cabin walls, sever fuel lines or block control functions.

Rolls-Royce, the maker of the particular A380 engine used by Qantas, and Airbus, have much to deal with in the ATSB lead inquiry now under way by a team supported by Singaporean and Indonesian accident investigators.

Captain Richard de Crespigny and crew had to deal with one shattered engine, one jammed engine, a fuel leak and compromised hydraulic and electrical controls.

In terms of managing the message, Qantas has done well. By underscoring its commitment to safety in grounding its six A380s, it has managed to enhance its reputation while seriously (but necessarily) dislocating the travel plans of thousands of  A380 customers, plus the knock-on effects for some other passengers of  redirected flights using alternative jets.

Singapore Airlines, which operates 11 A380s, also grounded its giant Airbuses overnight, but is now bringing them back on line as each is given an exceptional inspection of the Rolls-Royce engines, which are already under an airworthiness directive that warned of risks of an uncontained failure as long ago as January.

(It unclear if the fault that caused the Qantas drama is the one anticipated in that directive, or something new.)

Qantas may adopt a similar course to Singapore Airlines, in that once a special inspection clears the engines, the issues it has flagged over the airframe design are something that can be addressed in the future.

But it doesn’t need to hurry. This is one case where it can suffer flight disruptions for all the right reasons.

Peter Fray

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