Yesterday, flying from Paris Charles De Gaulle to Rome Fiumicino with an Alitalia A321, watching the ceiling, I suddenly thought about a brief discussion I had with Monica, a friend of mine, who’s a bit scared about flying and was even more worried about her next flight after reading about the frightening experience of a Meridiana flight that, late in 2010, plunged some thousands feets, after experiencing a pressurization failure. She had just read an article in which interviewed passengers recalled the moments when the masks had been released and the subsequent unexpected dive of the plane. What I explained to her is that the plunge is the most obvious manoeuvre the pilot will perform if a loss of cabin pressure occurs. An emergency descent is an entirely controlled manoeuvre that is performed to bring the aircraft to a safe altitude as soon as possible: the masks have a limited endurance hence, the sooner the plane reaches a lower altitude, the better. 10.000 feet is an altitude that can be tolerated without supplemental oxygen. Almost all the in-flight safety briefing say more or less that: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically descend from the ceiling. Grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have childs travelling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs”. Since pressurization problems seem to be less rare than in the past (yesterday a Qantas flight flying from Adelaide to Melbourne dropped 26.000 ft after cabin became depressurized; a few weeks ago a similar thing happened to a Ryanair flight; etc), I think that is time to change the briefing and to add something clarifying that “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure…..the aircraft will probably perform a sudden controlled emergency descent to a safe altitude” or something like that. This message would probably spread the idea that there’s no need to worry if the plane plunge after the masks have come down!
The Qantas Airbus A380 uncontained engine failure experienced by QF32 on departure from Singapore on Nov. 4, 2010, has already made the news. The following day, Nov. 5, a B747-400ER “VH-OJD” flying from Singapore to Sydney as QF6 was compelled to return to Changi for a failure on engine #1. When I first heard of this new emergency I thought to joke but the mishap has been confirmed by Qantas spokeman. Pure coincidence? Maybe. However, please notice that: both flights departed Singapore for Sydney, both Qantas flights, both 4 engines aircraft, both Rolls Royce powered, both experiencing engine #1 failures.
Two months ago, commenting about the uncontained engine failure involving the Qantas B747-400 just departed from San Francisco (for details read here) I wrote: “Unlike other minor failures occuring almost daily everywhere, an uncontained failure (that is quite different from an engine explosion….), is somehow rare, but not a big deal (if there’s no damage to the wing or fuselage caused by a separated engine part), especially if happening in the vicinity of the departure airport”. What happened to QF32, an Airbus A380 from Singapore to Sydney somehow prove that such kind of emergency is not as rare at least for Qantas aircraft…. On Nov. 4, 2010, Airbus 380 “VH-OQA”, the first A380-800 flying with Qantas, with 433 passengers and 26 crew members on board, experienced an uncontained engine failure 30 minutes after departure from Singapore and was compelled to return to Changi airport where it performed a successful emergency landing after circling above the sea for fuel dumping. Parts from the #2 engine punctured the left wing while debris fell on the ground (fortunately, nobody was hurt). Even if the cause of the failure is obviously still unknown, as a consequence of the engine problem Qantas grounded its seven Airbus 380s, to be followed, according to rumors, by the Singapore and Lufthansa ones in the next few hours (Qantas, Singarpore and Lufthansa A380s are equipped with the Rolls Royce Trent 900 variant power plant – while Air France and Emirates are powered by Engine Alliance GP7200 engines). Since I’ve not heard latelyabout similar events involving aircraft of other airlines, what happened to QF32 raises a question: what’s wrong in the Rolls Royce – Qantas duo? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps Qantas planes with Rolls Royce engines had just bad luck but investigation will have to analyse also airline’s maintenance procedures as well as engine design and type of material used to build engine components at RR. So, what have we learnt so far from this event? 1) engine failures happens (on 4 engine aircraft but also on 2 or 3 engine planes – the number of engines is statistically irrelevant) 2) uncontained engine failures are not so dangerous, provided they don’t cause damages to the wing or fuselage 3) in the last two occurrences, the “uncontainment” happened few minutes after departure (hence, in such a phase of flight in which stress on engine is at the highest level) 4) aircraft experiencing this type of emergency can return to the departure aerodrome safely 5) this was the most serious incident worldwide involving an A380 since it entered service three years ago 6) aircraft parts sometimes fall from the sky (as in Donnie Darko movie….) so be careful :)
The recent Qantas B747-400 engine failure that compelled the QF74 on Aug. 31, 2010, to land only 41 minutes after departure from San Francisco (with destination Sydney), has already made the news. Unlike other minor failures occuring almost daily everywhere, an uncontained failure (that is quite different from an engine explosion….), is somehow rare, but not a big deal (if there’s no damage to the wing or fuselage caused by a separated engine part), especially if happening in the vicinity of the departure airport. Now have a look at the route followed by the aircraft from departure to landing taken from FlightAware.com:
The route clearly shows that upon experiencing the n.4 engine failure, flying at FL300, some 270NM to the West of San Francisco, the QF74 headed back to SFO and, instead of proceeding directly to landing, it performed a couple of 360s to dump fuel. Someone asked why the pilot did not proceed straight towards the airport after loosing one engine (out of 4…) but I think that there’s nothing weird on such a behaviour: as the aircraft can fly safely also with a single engine (in particular circumstances…), it is safer to land the heavy plane (with 212 passengers) after loosing some thousands lbs of fuel. Indeed, much interestingly, the pilot did not (at least until the very last part of the flight) declare emergency (even if most news reports didn’t mention this detail or mistakenly stated that the flight had declared emergency) as the aircraft could be safely flown back on the remaining engines.
The analysis of the ATC recording is quite interesting: QF74 first call to the radar is to request descent to FL200. When requested if a vector back to San Francisco was needed, the pilot replies with a “stand by”, followed, minutes later by a request for radar vectors back to KSFO. Fuel dumping was performed from FL200, eastbound, then the aircraft was cleared to descend to 10.000 at pilot’s discrection (even if the aircraft maintaned FL200 and later “moved” on RAINS waypoint to continue its holding/fuel dumping).
Interestingly, a replacement engine was carried (as 5th engine) by QF73, Qantas B747-400 “VH-OJQ”, on Sept. 1.
Some videos taken with mobile phones from the passenger cabin of the aircraft can be found on the Internet.
The following article, published by the Sydney Morning Herald, on Sept. 2, 2010, provides some details dealing with airworthiness directives issued for the RR RB211 engines fitted to the QF B744 aircraft focusing on possible uncontained engine failures.
Qantas engine explosion followed safety warning Andrew Heasley and Matt O’Sullivan September 2, 2010
THE Qantas jet engine that exploded on Tuesday after take-off from San Francisco had not been inspected after safety warnings issued two weeks ago.
The safety bulletins in Australia, Europe and the US had warned of ”uncontained” engine failure – the technical term for when components are sprayed out of the engine enclosure during a malfunction.
The airworthiness directives were issued for Rolls-Royce RB211 engines, the model fitted to the Qantas 747-400 that was forced to make an emergency landing at San Francisco. A Qantsa jet was forced to turn back to San Francisco after a hole was blown in the shell of the engine.
Qantas confirmed the jumbo’s engines had not been inspected because it was not due for its regular maintenance checks. The engine that failed was last inspected on July 8. Some of the 212 passengers on QF74 reported seeing flames and sparks fly out of the plane’s fourth engine about 20 minutes after take-off.
The explosion ripped a hole through the engine’s cowling, causing the aircraft to shudder and requiring the pilots to dump fuel before making the emergency landing.
One passenger recalled seeing flames ”like a giant Roman candle stick” shooting towards the back of the aircraft from the failed fourth engine.
Another passenger panicked and yelled, ”We’re going to go down, we’re going to go down’,” but most handled the emergency calmly. Those who were not able to cope were ushered to the front of the aircraft.
Kirk Willcox, from Randwick, was seated in a row near the wing when he ”suddenly heard a loud pop and a swish” as the fourth engine caught fire.
”We knew we had not hit turbulence,” he said.
”We made a bit of a skid to the left, got the wobbles and then dropped in altitude.
”The girl I was sitting next to said, ‘the engine is on fire’, and I looked out and saw what looked like a giant Roman candlestick.
”It varied in intensity and was quite extraordinary.”
The airworthiness directive warned that ”several low pressure turbine shafts had been found with cracks originating from the rear cooling air holes”.
Qantas said that it was ”fully compliant” with the airworthiness directive, which required that the engine be inspected the next time it was due for maintenance.
A replacement engine has been flown to San Francisco.
I have already discussed the “long line of incidents” that in the last two years has posed a risk to the famous Qantas safety record. More or less two years ago I wrote an article titled “Qantas electric failures” commenting two occurrences of two subsequent losses of electrical power experienced by two Qantas B747-400s. One of the aircraft was flying from London to Bangkok as QF2 and the other one from Singapore to Melbourne as QF10, and I noticed that I had travelled with both of them a few months earlier. QF10 had some problems once again on Dec. 18, 2009, when it was forced to return to Singapore after experiencing an engine fire shortly after departure. The following Sydney Morning Herald article provides some more details about the last emergency:
Qantas flight turns back after ‘flames from engine’ THOMAS HUNTER December 18, 2009
Qantas passengers on board a flight that turned back shortly after leaving Singapore have described seeing “tongues of fire” coming from one of the 747 jumbo jet’s engines.
Flight QF10 was on its way to Melbourne carrying 354 passengers when the incident occurred.
Dylan Brady, 38, was returning to Melbourne after visiting Singapore on business when the plane “convulsed and lost power”.
“[My business partner and I] both thought something had fallen off the bottom, or the landing gear had come undone,” he said.
“Then we saw this orange light and we both looked out the window to see fire coming out of the back of the jet. It was pretty scary.”
Mr Brady said the flames lasted about 10 seconds, while the whole incident was over in about 25 seconds. He said the passengers knew something had happened but stayed calm, and the captain quickly informed them he had shut the engine down.
“When he shut the engine off, obviously everything was OK, the plane slowed down a little bit and then he sort of pulled gently and slowly to the left to get out of the flight path because the plane behind us was only a minute and half behind and still going full speed,” he said.
On its return to Singapore, Mr Brady said the plane was directed to its own runway which was lined with fire engines and emergency crews.
“To Qantas’s credit, by the time the plane got back to the ground they had hotels for everybody. It was pretty well organised. There were some conniptions when the business class passengers got their luggage and economy didn’t … I didn’t notice anyone who was ridiculously disgruntled.”
Another passenger, Steve Tanoto, described the shock “tongues of fire on the rightmost engine … in the middle of the night”.
The airline this morning confirmed a “mechanical fault” forced the jet back to Singapore soon after it took off last night.
A passenger who contacted Traveller reported flames coming from an engine 25 minutes after the jet took off from Singapore’s Changi Airport at 8.53pm, local time (11.53pm Melbourne time).
The plane landed safely and Qantas engineers are believed to be examining the aircraft.
The spokeswoman said pilots announced to passengers that the jet had developed a problem and they were shutting down the No.4 engine.
There was no panic among passengers, the spokeswoman said, as the pilots carried out “an air turn back” and returned to Singapore.
“There was no smoke or fire in the cabin, according to official reports, and at no stage was the safety of any of the passengers at risk,” the spokeswoman said.
Asked if the cabin crew reported smoke and flames from the failed engine, she said “there was no report of that, none at all”.
Passengers were take by bus accommodation for an expected 23-hour delay while the airline arranged a replacement 747 to fly passengers to Melbourne.
The incident is the latest in a long line of incidents to affect the trouble-plagued airline.
In July last year an oxygen gas bottle exploded mid-flight, ripping a hole in the side of a Qantas jet above the South China Sea.
A final report is expected next year. The explosion happened on a Hong Kong-Melbourne flight, carrying 369 people. No one was seriously hurt.
In October 2008 a computer glitch caused a Qantas Airbus to plunge twice in quick succession on its way from Singapore to Perth, injuring more than 100 people.
Meanwhile, industrial action at Qantas by professional engineers had no impact on services, an airline spokesman said yesterday. Alison Rose from the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers said yesterday’s action was designed to not inconvenience the public over Christmas.
If the dispute was not resolved she said passengers travelling next month may be affected.
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