Airbus described the situation the QF32 crew faced after the uncontained engine failure as “dynamic”. That’s accurate insofar as it goes, but rather an understatement.
The obvious and immediate effects, like asymmetric thrust and aerodynamic damage, were dealt with by the autopilot, which remained engaged and the Qantas A380 crew elected to keep it that way until short final approach at Singapore. Tha’t helps, but over time an autopilot can mask the consequences of problems like growing fuel imbalance owing to the pierced left wing tank.
But the biggest psychological problem they had was the plethora of warnings and the mass of systems information provided by the electronic centralised aircraft monitor (ECAM), and the cacophony of associated audible alerts.
If you design a computer-controlled systems monitoring device to tell the pilots when things go wrong, you can’t blame it for providing 54 warnings when 54 problems crop up over a period of about 2min.
But that doesn’t make life easy for the pilots. They have to get their heads around the macro-problem they face very quickly, and avoid being distracted by the micro problems.
Easier said than done. Each failure on the ECAM has an associated drill that - psychologically – clamours to be performed. 54 drills take a while.
It’s mischievous – but irresistible – to wonder, since this event ended happily, whether Capt Richard Champion de Crespigny who on this flight was undergoing an annual check by another trainer whose checking was in turn being checked, wondered for a millisecond whether this was all a set-up.
The ECAM design acknowledges that multiple failures can occur, and it prioritises resulting alerts with fire at the top of the list and flight control system failures next. But there is a powerful temptation for the crew to fixate on all that information and inadvertently lose track of its ultimate set of priorities: to aviate, navigate, communicate, in that order.
This crew didn’t make that mistake. It probably helped that the crew was augmented by the check pilots since there was so much to do, but a big crew takes a lot of coordinating.
The full analysis of what happened in this immensely complex event will take a while to complete. It is a unique opportunity for the aviation community to carry out an assessment of human factors engineering as well as the inevitable questions about whether design for systems damage tolerance could be any better.