How QF32 should not have been able to land & other stories

Damage on Qantas A380 VH-OQA from the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 uncontained engine failure last November. Photo: Dave Evans.

After shedding an $11 million dollar engine’s intermediate pressure chamber, having a continuous fuel leak that caused the port wing to be 10 tonnes lighter than the starboard wing, and addressing some 58 ECAM messages generated by the uncontained Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine failure on Qantas flight 32 last November, Senior Check Captain David Evans inputed into a laptop’s landing distance performance application the A380′s vital signs so the computer could calculate what landing scenarios were available. The computer’s answer?

“No results could be found with these conditions.”

VH-OQA “Nancy Bird-Walton”, the flagship and first of the type delivered to Qantas, could not land, the computer determined.

Evans changed the parameters, taking out the factor for a wet runway since Changi was dry, and this time had luck, but would need more of it: the computer had generated a landing scenario for QF32 to return to Singapore. But of Changi’s 4000 metre runway 20C, the computer calculated QF32 would need 3900m, leaving a margin of 100m.

The story from there, and indeed before, is well-known and has largely been documented in the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s preliminary report, but after hearing the circumstances from the crew in a new documentary, the report does not do entire justice to the severity of the accident and the crew’s airmanship. (The QF32 crew will be awarded the Polaris prize from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations.)

The QF32 story has been looked at again by ABC’s Four Corners programme, which aired an hour-long documentary on the subject on 28 March in Australia. The first half covers the flight and the aircraft’s return to Changi while the second half covers the investigation and Rolls-Royce’s involvement, news from which was published earlier today.

The documentary aims to “tell the real story” of QF32. That real story is one that started before the flight in Rolls-Royce facilities where the Trent 900 was manufactured and discovered to be faulty, leading a new mod standard. The real story is also one that starts after the flight and involves the lack of communication from Rolls to airline operators and Airbus. It also includes the Qantas-Roll lawsuit, still underway.

In short, that real story is in the second half of the documentary and will be reviewed after it finishes airing. So for now, read on for more factoids.

We are told of trivial but interesting details, like the last-minute crew change due to an illness, and first officer Matt Hicks safely returning to the ground an aircraft named after the same woman–Nancy Bird-Walton–who wrote Hicks’s reference letter when he applied to join Qantas as a cadet.

We also hear how Joyce found out about QF32. He was in his car when the carrier’s investor relations team told him the Qantas share price was “collapsing”. The cause was investors picking up on tweets saying QF32 had crashed.

The aircraft did not crash and there were not any ground casualties from the falling debris, although we see an Indonesian teacher recount how a hot piece of engine debris fell into a Batam school, missing a boy at his desk by 5 centimetres.

The Qantas pilots have previously recounted, in great detail, their story. But we get hear more tidbits. At one point they briefed the crew to stand by for an over-run and, later, an evacuation.

Once on the ground, with VH-OQA’s brakes exceeding 900 degrees, the crew asked the firefighters to apply foam. “They said ‘You must shut down the engines,’” QF32 pilot Richard de Crespigny recounts. “And we said ‘We have’ and they said ‘No you haven’t’. So in frustration I slammed open the left-hand window and put my head out the window and I think I expressed an expletive and said, ‘Engine no. 1 is still running.’”

Photos may be worth a million words, but for Evans, seeing the damage of VH-OQA back at Changi left him with one word. “Gobsmacking is the only way to describe it,” he says. “I didn’t expect the whole back of the engine to not be there.”

“To look underneath and still see fuel leaking out of the fuel tanks and just walking around, it was actually a bit surreal. There’s all this retardant foam blowing around through the air and I’m just sort of wandering around under the plane,” de Crespigny says.

We also get to hear from Qantas’s Sydney operations team who also saw all of QF32′s ECAMs, which one employee described as “Amazing messages. Messages like we’ve never seen before, both [in] quantity and severity.”

Perhaps the greatest under-statement comes from a passenger who spoke to a Sydney-based Rolls-Royce engineer who happened to on the ground in Singapore after the accident. She recalls the engineer said, “‘Did you see that? That should never have happened. That engine should always be a contained explosion.’”

Replay information is available here.

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One Response to How QF32 should not have been able to land & other stories

  1. mrdeux April 13, 2011 at 7:50 am #

    It’s actually two years in a row that QANTAS crews have been awarded the Polaris Medal.

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