From Rolls-Royce, eleven words worth a million

No2engineinspectionA380.JPGEngineers conduct a borescope investigation of the no. 2 Trent 900 engine on Qantas A380 VH-OQC in Sydney on 6 November. Photo: Will Horton

Last Friday night Andrew Dudgeon naturally took to the stage precariously.

The chief executive of Rolls-Royce Australasia was to present the technical story of the year award at the National Aviation Press Club dinner in Sydney, and earlier that day the ATSB released its preliminary report into the uncontained engine failure on a Rolls-Royce Trent 900-powered Qantas A380.

Rolls-Royce had hitherto said little. Its press conference after the 4 November incident confirmed barley anything more than Rolls-Royce manufactured the Trent 900. The powerplant manufacturer even canceled a press conference at China’s Zhuhai airshow.

As the audience applauded Dudgeon’s short speech of support to airlines, I contemplated his last remark: “No aircraft will fly unless it is safe to do so.”

That should be aviation’s guiding principle.

But is that what Rolls-Royce has neglected?

The puzzling circumstance after the QF32 incident on 4 November is that Rolls-Royce appeared to know what the problem was, and where else it might re-occur.

As we reported for our news wire Air Transport Intelligence:

Lufthansa’s decision to change an engine on its first Airbus A380, in response to the Qantas incident, has partly been driven by the fact that the powerplant was an early production example.

Sources familiar with the process state that one engine on the Lufthansa aircraft was from a “former production cycle”, indicating that the other three powerplants had already undergone a change before being fitted.

On 10 November Singapore Airlines announced it would recall three of its A380s back to Singapore to change one engine on each aircraft. Although the aircraft were on two continents outside of Singapore’s Changi base, Singapore knew exactly which engines it needed to change. But how?

What we learned since is that the problem–in short: fatigue cracking, thinning pipe wall–was limited to “A mod” and “B mod” versions of the Trent 900. “C mod” versions were not affected. Thus Rolls-Royce could identify which engines were at risk to experience a similar failure.

The implications, my colleagues have written, are:

This appears to indicate that Rolls-Royce may have identified the fault and fixed it on the latest engine variant. It is not clear, however, when the fix was implemented.

While the latest, “C mod”, version of the Trent 900 would have been fixed, the earlier “A mod” and “B mod” versions were neglected. Qantas says at the time of the incident Rolls-Royce had repaired only one of the 24 Trent 900s on Qantas A380s. (Qantas contracted Rolls-Royce’s TotalCare maintenance program to look after and repair its A380 engines, so the carrier is not to blame.)

Did Rolls-Royce underestimate the potential severity of the fault? It may have been acute ignorance, but you have to hope that was the circumstance and not a determination far worse: negligence, which is what Qantas alleges.

Update, Thursday morning: We’ve heard from Rolls-Royce. They dither on what modifications occurred and if the “C mod” Trent 900 was affected (read more here), but their statements conflict with those from airlines.

What Rolls-Royce knew and did may never be known. Not even Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce was clear on Trent 900 modifications made prior to 4 November.

Joyce said last month: “It doesn’t look like it’s a significant modification, but it is a modification that has an impact on how the engines are performing. And it is a modification that indicates whether you are going to have a problem or not with the engine.”

To paraphrase Dudgeon, Rolls-Royce will not permit an aircraft to fly with the potential, generic problem Joyce references.

But Joyce had a problem on a Trent 900 and ended up with a grounded A380 fleet that still cannot cross the Pacific due to thrust restrictions.

If Rolls-Royce is only now playing public-relations catch-up by declaring no unsafe jet will fly on its watch, Rolls-Royce’s customers are seeing right through it. As Joyce said of the Trent 900 modification, “If this was significant and was known to be significant, we would have liked to have known about that…We and Airbus weren’t aware of it.”

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