Last Friday Capt Richard Champion de Crespigny arrived at Qantas’s London regional headquarters in Hammersmith to give the staff a personal account of the day in November 2010 when his Airbus A380 suffered a catastrophic engine failure.
I won’t rehearse yet again the technical detail of this well-documented event, but I will quote de Crespigny’s words to the Australian media early this year describing what happened when his No 2 engine was blown apart by an uncontained turbine disc failure: “The wing was cluster-bombed. The aircraft had phenomenal damage to all systems. But it didn’t just recover, it performed brilliantly.”
Sure, but the flightcrew had to deal with a badly damaged three-engined aircraft and an ECAM display continuously scrolling a total of more than 60 system failures that clamoured for attention.
This is a brief account of the human side of what happened.
It’s true the A380 proved itself pretty robust, but de Crespigny and his crew managed the aircraft’s performance and the passengers’ wellbeing with considerable skill and judgement. Not every skipper would have achieved the outcome he did.
I was among the audience at the Qantas London office as de Crespigny gave his presentation to the Oz carrier’s European HQ team. There were about 25 of them in the room, clearly all ready to be won, but de Crespigny brought them on board from the outset. Every Qantas employee had played their part with his crew that day, he told them, and he clearly meant it.
He reminded them that, among the 469 people on board the A380 that day, not a soul was harmed, and there have been no complaints from any of them since, despite the potential trauma of what they experienced, followed by the inevitable disruption to their planned journeys.
De Crespigny began his account unsensationally, describing the routine departure from Singapore for Sydney. Then, passing 7,000ft, the steady climb was interrupted by two very loud BANGS. The intermediate turbine disc had disintegrated at 8,000rpm, sending supersonic shrapnel slicing through the left wing, piercing a fuel tank and severing electrical and hydraulic runs.
He related how the accident investigators’ subsequent projections had determined that, having sliced through the wing, one of three major disc fragments travelling at twice the speed of sound had missed the fuselage by 2cm.
Instantly he had told us about hearing the BANG, our briefing room was suddenly ringing with the adrenaline-charged chimes of the A380′s Master Warning System, just like it had blasted the flight deck that day.
De Crespigny’s calm commentary continued uninterrupted through the shrilling alarm, as if he alone was oblivious to it. We were willing it to stop.
In the aeroplane on the day: every time the crew cancelled the aural alert, new ECAM warnings re-started it.
In the Hammersmith briefing room de Crespigny suddenly cancelled the frantic chiming. It felt like it had been ringing for half an hour, but in fact it had been running less than a minute.
The audience had got the point. So you have to think straight with that going on? But how?
In the aircraft, de Crespigny’s immediate reaction to the engine explosion was to command the autopilot to level the aircraft out. Simultaneously he set about assessing whether, despite whatever had happened, the aircraft was flying at a safe speed and altitude with enough power to sustain it.
It was. The electrically isolated No 1 engine had gone autonomous and was running at a useful power setting. No 2 was dead. No 3 was the only one still on autothrottle, and 4 was also running autonomously. All three live engines were running at different power settings, and at that moment it was impossible to know precisely why they were. This was just one of a thousand confusing signals.
The crew themselves didn’t yet know exactly what was going on or why, but de Crespigny knew the aeroplane was still flyable. So far.
The copilot – Matt - immediately went heads down and began attending to the seemingly never-ending series of system failures. Checklist after checklist, working with de Crespigny and the three other pilots in the A380′s augmented crew.
This continued for some time until de Crespigny realised so many systems and units had failed that normal procedures were no use, and might even be counter-productive.
There were no checklists for this stuff.
He realised, he told us, that instead of dealing with the failures, his crew had to determine what was still working, and just use it. “I remember saying, ‘Matt, stop!’”
This flight carried an unusually large augmented crew, because a new line-check captain who was checking de Crespigny was himself being checked by a senior one. The result was that there was a spare voice to brief the cabin crew and passengers.
So as soon as it became apparent that the aircraft could be successfully controlled, one of the supernumerary pilots checked with de Crespigny, then used the cabin address system to reassure the crew and passengers that, despite the failure of an engine, the aircraft was perfectly safe, and they would return to Singapore as soon as the crew had carefully checked the aircraft and its systems. “I was, actually, confident that we were safe,” de Crespigny told us.
That first cabin address took place about three minutes after the engine explosion. As a result, de Crespigny told us, for the rest of the flight “the mood in the cabin was very relaxed.” He related how his cabin service director, Michael von Reth, handed over tactical operational control of the cabin to his deputy, and spent his time moving around the cabin talking to passengers.
It was about 45min, de Crespigny admits, before he himself got to speak on the cabin address. By that time the crew had worked out how long they had before the aircraft would be down to a safe landing weight, but would still have sufficient fuel in the leaking left wing to keep No 1 engine working and maintain the aircraft’s balance. They had also assessed the landing performance with no working spoilers, no leading edge slats and limited roll control. Remarkably, they had manual control of all three working engines. They calculated they would stop with about 80m of the runway to go.
All they had to do now, while still at a safe height, was to carry out low speed handling checks to determine the parameters for a safe approach. So they did that.
De Crespigny’s briefing to the cabin was not only reassuring to the passengers, it was strategic from Qantas’ point of view. He advised the passengers that, once safely on the ground as they soon would be, they pretty quickly would be confronted by the media who would want to know what happened. He briefed the passengers on the essentials of what had happened to the aeroplane, as well as what was yet to come during the approach and landing they were about to begin. De Crespigny was also aware that, after landing, the passengers would naturally access the social media via their smart phones, if only to reassure their families.
The results of de Crespigny’s foresight, once the passengers were safely in the terminal at Singapore, were priceless to the airline. As he pointed out to us: “The passengers became a team working for us. They were our evangelists.”
The final approach to Singapore was tight work, because the airspeed margin between incipient stall and the speed above which they would overrun the runway was only a few knots. They got stall warnings at 600ft and 300ft, but on the whole it went well. The aircraft stopped within the runway distance about 1h 40min after the engine failure.
De Crespigny admits that the most difficult decisions had to be taken after the aircraft had come to a halt, surrounded by fire crews dousing the hot brakes and covering the growing pool of fuel beneath the leaking tank with foam. The No 1 engine was still running at high power and would not shut down because it was electrically isolated, and so were its fuel shut-offs. Also, the runway they had landed on was the central one of Singapore’s three parallel strips, so there were active runways either side. So how to get the passengers safely out into this unfriendly environment, then safely away from it?
Eventually de Crespigny saw the entire complement of passengers and crew disembark into waiting buses via a set of steps at the forward starboard door.
De Crespigny was inevitably the lynchpin of the operation that day, but Qantas’ crisis management team worked well. Back in the airport terminal at Singapore, de Crespigny and his crew stayed with the passengers, providing answers and ensuring support. But the support was there. None of the passengers had to fight for anything – accommodation, access to communications. Off duty employees all over Qantas’ global network were reporting in to find out if they could do anything to help.
Right now, as I commit this story to the electronic ether, Qantas has been totally grounded as a management response to union strike threats. Be careful with your people, Qantas. A worldwide team of employees who can do this for you has taken generations to build.