Video: Qantas close-call puts Airbus 380 on probation

  1. Transcript of: Qantas close-call puts Airbus 380 on probation

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: It's been the most talked about passenger jet of recent years because it's just so big, so enormous, and carries so many people. The Airbus A380 is a superjumbo, so large a lot of airports can't handle it. It's got two floors of passenger space, carries hundreds of passengers. It's a long-haul jet powered by four massive engines. And last night, the first major incident in the life of the 380. One of those engines exploded in what could have been a catastrophic flight. We begin here tonight with NBC 's Tom Costello .

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Home video of the world's biggest commercial plane trailing heavy smoke and making an emergency landing in Singapore . And thicker smoke once it comes to complete stop. Qantas Flight 32 had taken off from Singapore on its way to Sidney , Australia , when just six minutes into flight, the number two engine on the left side of the aircraft exploded. A short time later, the pilot told passengers the other three engines were fine.

    Unidentified Pilot: We have dealt with the situation. The aircraft is secure at this stage. We're going to have to hold for some time whilst we do lighten our load by dumping some fuel and a number of checklists we have to perform.

    COSTELLO: On the ground below, pieces of the engine rained down on the Indonesian island of Batam , hitting a shopping center, cars, even a school, though no one was injured. Once back at the airport in Singapore , passengers said the explosion sounded like a loud thud.

    Ms. MEG GRAHAM (Qantas Flight 32 Passenger): First five minutes, there was a bang, and then another bang and then that was it.

    Unidentified Woman: What kind of bang?

    Ms. GRAHAM: Well, you know, a bang. A bang.

    Woman: Like bang. Yeah.

    Ms. GRAHAM: Boom.

    Mr. NEIL SHEPHARD (Qantas Flight 32 Passenger): The pilot did his job. He did a great job in terms of keeping everybody calm.

    COSTELLO: The Airbus A380 is only three years old, able to seat as many as 850 passengers. Thirty-seven are in service worldwide, flown by five international carriers. Qantas owns six A380s , the pride of the fleet. A short time before one landed in Los Angeles today, Qantas announced it was temporarily grounding its A380s .

    Mr. ALAN JOYCE (Qantas CEO): We would suspend those A380 services until we are completely confident that Qantas safe requirements have been met.

    COSTELLO: Veteran investigators say the massive explosion could have proved fatal had the debris penetrated the wing or cut into the cabin.

    Mr. GREG FEITH (Former National Transportation Safety Board Investigator): Because there is a fuel tank, there are multiple fuel lines in that area as well as hydraulic lines.

    COSTELLO: Uncontained engine failures are extremely rare. The Europeans issued an air-worthiness directive earlier this year on that Rolls-Royce engine, warning that unusual wear could cause the engine to shut down in flight. Tonight, Rolls-Royce says it is investigating and it recommends airlines do precautionary checks on those A380s that use that engine. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Tom Costello starting us off in Washington tonight. Tom , thanks.

Image: Indonesian police officers inspect parts of a Qantas jetliner
Tundra Laksamana  /  AP
Indonesian police officers inspect parts of a Qantas jetliner that were found in Batam, Indonesia, on Thursday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/9/2010 7:28:57 PM ET 2010-11-10T00:28:57

The European Aviation Safety Agency issued a warning in August over excessive wear in the Rolls-Royce engines used aboard the Qantas Airways Airbus A380 that was forced to make an emergency landing Thursday in Singapore.

The air worthiness directive, dated Aug. 4, cautioned that "wear, beyond Engine Manual limits" had been identified on the the Rolls-Royce PLC Trent 900 — the same engine that disintegrated on Qantas Flight 32 shortly after takeoff, forcing the superjumbo jet to make an emergency landing and showering debris onto houses and a shopping mall below. The directive also warned that problems with the engine could "result in loss of engine performance with potential for in-flight shut down."

Not all airlines with A380s use Rolls-Royce engines. But Qantas grounded its six-strong A380 fleet, which all use Rolls-Royce engines, after the midair incident.

Rolls-Royce issued a statement Thursday that the company was recommending a series of checks on the Trent 900 engines. "The in-service fleet of Trent 900 engines is small and relatively new, and the group feels that it is prudent to recommend that a number of basic precautionary engine checks are performed. This process is now under way," the engine maker said.

"We will continue to work closely with our customers as the investigation moves forward. This is at a very early stage and it would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions at this time.

"As always the safe operation of our products is our number one priority," the statement said.

Qantas said the Airbus A380 — which had stopped off en route from London to Sydney, Australia — suffered a "significant engine failure" shortly after takeoff from Singapore. The plane turned around and landed safely with no injuries.

The carrier said there was no explosion, but passengers among the 459 people on board Flight 32 variously reported hearing a "massive bang" or a "loud boom," with one describing the incident as "the scariest thing I had seen."

Facts on the Airbus A380

After the plane made an emergency landing in Singapore, the engine closest to the fuselage on the left wing had visible burn marks and was missing a section of plate that would have been painted with the red kangaroo logo of the airline. The upper part of the left wing also appeared damaged.

Interactive: Emergency landing (on this page)
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The pieces, mostly small, torn metal but some the size of doors, were brought to police headquarters for the investigation. Pictures of the pieces were shown on Indonesia's MetroTV broadcaster, with people milling around.

The aircraft was delivered to Qantas in September of 2008, and has logged around 8,165 flight hours, Airbus said.

Some carriers ground A380s
Thursday's incident was one of most serious for the A380, the world's biggest passenger jet, in its three years of commercial flight.

"We will suspend all A380 takeoffs until we are fully confident we have sufficient information about (flight) QF32," Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce told reporters.

The carrier had three A380 flights scheduled for Thursday, one originating in Sydney and two in Los Angeles.

Singapore Airlines also delayed all flights on its fleet of 10 A380s pending precautionary checks recommended by Airbus and Rolls-Royce. It was not immediately clear how many flights would be affected or for how long.

Emirates said it was not considering suspending flights as its engines are from a different supplier. "All of our Emirates A380s are operating as scheduled," the carrier said in a statement. "Emirates has 13 A380 aircraft in operation, powered by Engine Alliance GP7200 engines. The safety of our passengers and crew is always of paramount importance."

European airlines Air France and Lufthansa said they would continue to use the aircraft as normal.

Thirty-seven A380s are in operation around the world.

"The A380 is a fantastic aircraft. This issue of an engine failure is one we have not seen before. We are obviously taking this very seriously, because it was a significant engine failure," Joyce said.

'Like a shotgun going off'
Former aircraft engineer Neil Shephard was on board Flight 32. "Four or five minutes after the flight (took off) there was a loud bang," he told Reuters. "The pilot said there was a technical issue with the plane and then we circled around for an hour to dump the fuel. During the landing, it was a bit wobbly."

"I just heard this massive bang, like a shotgun going off," Tyler Wooster told Australia's Network Nine television. "Part of the skin had peeled off and you could see the foam underneath, pieces of broken wires sticking out."

"My whole body just went to jelly and I didn't know what was going to happen as we were going down, if we were going to be OK," he added.

"I was sitting over the wing, where the No. 2 engine is. I was looking out of the window on the tarmac as we took off," Ulf Waschbusch, another passenger, told Reuters.

Video: Qantas jetliner makes emergency landing (on this page)

"Five minutes after take-off there was a loud boom, small pieces flying around (outside), it was the scariest thing I had seen. The plane was surprisingly stable all through. There was no panic," he said.

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Rosemary Hegardy, 60, of Sydney, told The Associated Press that she heard two bangs and saw yellow flames from her window.

"There was flames — yellow flames came out, and debris came off. ... You could see black things shooting through the smoke, like bits of debris," she said.

Although it was nearly 90 minutes from the time of the explosion to the plane landing, there was no panic inside the aircraft, she said.

"The captain addressed the passengers immediately by saying, 'I'm sure you realize there's a problem. We have to find out what the problem is,' " Hegardy said. "Shortly after that, the captain explained that an engine had failed and needed to dump fuel before landing."

"The crew were fantastic, really — I am so amazed that everyone stayed calm," Hegardy said. "We were all sort of really shaken up, but what could you do?"

Video: NTSB chief suspects ‘uncontained failure’ (on this page)

Investigation
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau was leading the investigation into the incident, said Qantas CEO Joyce. Passengers will stay in Singapore overnight and another plane will be dispatched for them on Friday morning.

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Initial media reports said the plane had crashed after an explosion over the Indonesian island of Batam, near Singapore.

In 2008, a mid-air explosion blew a minivan-size hole in the side of a Qantas 747-400 which Australian air safety investigators blamed on an oxygen bottle.

There have been no fatal incidents involving A380s since they were launched in 2005 as the greenest, quietest and biggest jetliner.

An A380 operated by Qantas burst two tires this year when landing in Sydney, and in September 2009 a Singapore Airlines A380 was forced to turn around in mid-flight and return to Paris after one of its engines failed.

"This is probably the most serious incident involving the A380 since it began flying in commercial service," said aviation expert Tom Ballantyne, chief correspondent of Orient Aviation magazine. "There have been minor engine incidents before but nothing like this."

The A380 has been bedeviled with production delays.

More than 200 orders have been placed for the aircraft. Qantas said the incident did not impact its standing orders for more A380s.

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Officials in Indonesia said the engine trouble could not have been related to recent volcanic eruptions of Mount Merapi, some 800 miles to the east, which hurled ash in to the skies and has disrupted some air traffic.

In 1982, a British Airways flight suffered engine failure it flew into a volcanic cloud in western Sumatra and was forced to make an emergency landing in Jakarta. The flight from Singapore to Perth, Australia, plunged several thousand feet before the engines restarted in the June 24, 1982 incident.

Thursday's incident came just days before Qantas was due to celebrate its 90th anniversary with a special open day in Brisbane.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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