Image: A Qantas A380 superjumbo takes off at Mascot Airport in Sydney
John Donegan  /  AP
A Qantas A380 superjumbo takes off past at Mascot Airport in Sydney on Nov. 27. Australian investigators on Thursday identified the source of an oil leak that caused a superjumbo engine to blow apart. They said a suspected manufacturing defect in the Rolls-Royce engine was to blame.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/2/2010 7:16:06 AM ET 2010-12-02T12:16:06

Qantas stepped up pressure on Thursday on engine maker Rolls-Royce to settle damages related to an engine failure on one of its giant Airbus A380 aircraft, but said it would keep the door open for an out-of-court settlement.

Qantas said it had filed a claim in the Federal Court of Australia over the financial and commercial impact of the mid-air failure of a Roll-Royce engine on Nov. 4 , which forced a Sydney-bound A380 to make an emergency landing in Singapore with 466 people on board.

"Today's action allows Qantas to keep all options available to the company to recover losses, as a result of the grounding of the A380 fleet and the operational constraints currently imposed on A380 services," the airline said.

"The airline has today filed a statement of claim ... (to) ensure that the company can pursue legal action against Rolls-Royce ... if a commercial settlement is not possible."

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Qantas said the claim did not include a specific figure as it was still assessing the damage.

Rolls-Royce had no comment Thursday morning.

Brokerage UBS estimated it may cost the airline around A$60 million ($58 million) in costs and lost revenue.

A firm estimate on the damages may still be months away as Qantas does not yet know when it can return the aircraft to service or when Rolls-Royce can fully solve the technical issues.

Australian investigators on Thursday also identified the source of an oil leak that caused the superjumbo engine to blow apart. They said a suspected manufacturing defect in the Rolls-Royce engine was to blame.

They warned airlines the potential flaw could cause engine failure.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau recommended the three airlines that use Rolls-Royce's massive Trent 900 engines on their A380s go back and conduct more checks now that it had pinpointed the problem area. Three airlines fly a total of 20 such planes.

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Earlier warnings blamed an oil leak for a fire and subsequent chain of failures that sent heavy parts flying off an engine on a Qantas A380 shortly after it took off, the most serious safety problem for the world's largest and newest jetliner.

Video: Report: Jet engine maker knew of flaws (on this page)

The ATSB, which is leading the international investigation into the Qantas breakup, added some specifics on Thursday, saying a section of an oil tube that connects the high-pressure and intermediate-pressure bearing structures of the engine was the danger area.

"The problem relates to the potential for misaligned oil pipe counter-boring, which could lead to fatigue cracking, oil leakage and potential engine failure from an oil fire," the ATSB said in a brief statement.

It called the problem "a potential manufacturing defect."

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Counter-boring involves placing a larger hole over a smaller hole to make room for a seal. The ATSB said a misalignment of those holes had produced a thinning of the oil pipe wall and fatigue cracks. That could have led to oil leaking into a section of the engine containing extremely hot gas — a mixture of burned fuel and air. If oil comes into contact with the hot gas, it will burn.

"It is a design error and obviously a major one," said Peter Marosszeky, a jetliner maintenance expert at the University of New South Wales.

The ATSB recommended close inspections of all Trent 900 engines to look for signs of the counter-boring problem. Any engines that display such signs should be removed from service, it said.

In response to that recommendation, Rolls-Royce, affected airlines and other safety regulators were taking action to ensure the A380s involved were safe, the ATSB statement said.

The three airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Germany's Lufthansa, conducted extensive checks of their Trent 900 engines and modified some parts in compliance with a Nov. 11 directive from the European Aviation Safety Authority. That order was to look for oil leaks in the same section of the engine, but did not mention a potential source.

Regulators have said preliminary investigations show an oil fire broke out in the section of the Qantas engine that houses the turbines, which are spun at great speeds by combusting jet fuel. An oil pump and network of tubes lubricate and cool the turbines.

Experts say the fire could have caused the rotor to which the turbine blades are attached to expand, bringing the blades in contact with the casing that encloses the engine. Part of a shattered turbine disc was found in the wreckage of the engine, and another part flew off in the disintegration and hasn't been recovered, the ATSB said.

Video: Qantas close-call puts Airbus 380 on probation (on this page)

Qantas, which grounded its six A380s for more than three weeks after the blowout, said Thursday it would conduct one-time checks on its superjumbos. Spokesman Simon Rushton said the inspections were not expected to take long, or disrupt service.

'No immediate risk'
Qantas replaced 16 Trent 900s before putting just two of its A380s back into the skies five days ago. The others are still undergoing tests.

"After discussions with the Australian Transport and Safety Bureau and Rolls-Royce, it was decided it was prudent to conduct further inspections of engine components, although there is no immediate risk to flight safety," Qantas said in a statement.

The ATSB finding strengthens Qantas CEO Alan Joyce's stated belief the incident was caused by a manufacturing problem, not a maintenance issue for which the airline could bear responsibility. Rolls-Royce has remained largely silent about the issue since it happened, and the London-based company's share price has seesawed.

Video: Qantas passenger video shows damaged wing (on this page)

John Page, an aircraft designer and senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of New South Wales, said one possible explanation for a misalignment of the oil tubes was a programming error in computers used in the manufacturing process.

"The problem with it is if there is an error in the coding of the machining, then (to) some extent it's not as obvious — because nobody's actually doing it by hand," he said. "As designs become more and more automated, people are expecting more perfection. It's much closer to perfection — it just ain't perfect."

The ATSB is due to publish its preliminary report into the Qantas incident on Friday.

Chief commissioner Martin Dolan said it pre-empted the report with Thursday's safety recommendation because it realized only on Wednesday in discussions with Rolls-Royce the significance of the counter-boring issue.

"We considered it was a sufficiently significant safety issue that we should immediately release it to parties who were operating with these engines," Dolan told The Associated Press.

Singapore Airlines has 11 superjumbos which use Trent 900 engines and Lufthansa has three.

Singapore Airlines said Thursday it is conducting new checks of its engines.

"Singapore Airlines is complying with the recommendations and carrying out the new inspections, alongside other inspections recommended by Rolls-Royce and included in the directives from the European Aviation Safety Agency," it said in a statement.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Report: Jet engine maker knew of flaws

  1. Transcript of: Report: Jet engine maker knew of flaws

    MATT LAUER, co-host: There are new developments tied to a midair emergency involving the world's largest passenger jet . Four hundred and fifty-nine people were on board a Qantas Airlines A380 a little earlier this month when an engine failed, forcing an emergency landing . NBC 's Tom Costello covers aviation for us. Tom , good morning to you.

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi, Matt. What we now know about the multiple cascading failures on board this plane really makes it remarkable that the crew managed to land safely. And we also are now hearing from Qantas Airlines that Rolls-Royce may have known of a serious defect with its A380 engines , yet allowed the planes to continue flying. The home video of a hole in the left wing of Qantas Flight 32 is terrifying enough, but we now know how lucky the crew and 450 passengers were to have survived the midair explosion that rained engine parts on an Indonesian island below. When the plane's left engine exploded, debris apparently punctured two fuel tanks, cut control lines, damaged the breaking and landing flaps, severed one of two hydraulic lines and shut down a power generator. Even the front landing gear had to be manually lowered. In all, 54 cockpit alarms and multiple warnings. Flying the plane back to Singapore took all the strength that the pilots and training pilots, who happened to be on board that day.

    Unidentified Man: So we felt this loud thud and the pilot did a fantastic job.

    Mr. TOM CASEY (Retired Boeing 777 Pilot): This was a major multiple emergency situation. It took these guys, five guys working together like astronauts on Apollo 13 to get this airplane safely down.

    COSTELLO: Now Qantas Airlines says the engine maker, Rolls-Royce , had been shipping new modified engines for the A380 without telling Qantas or the plane's maker, Airbus , that the older engines apparently had a defect, even as thousands of passengers continues to fly on A380s despite the risk.

    Mr. GREG FEITH (Former NTSB Investigator): And it may have been that they undercalculated or miscalculated the true risk, that is causing a fire which would cause the turbine section to seize and have a catastrophic failure .

    COSTELLO: Both Rolls-Royce and Airbus decline to comment, but Lufthansa says it too has received modified Rolls-Royce engines for its A380 fleet. A catastrophic explosion like this one is called an uncontained engine failure, extremely rare in modern aviation .

    Mr. MARK ROSENKER (Former NTSB Chairman): There are approximately 25 million flights in the world a year, and we see about 25 incidents and very, very rarely out of the 25 do we see an uncontained failure like we've seen with that A380 .

    COSTELLO: While European aviation authorities warned earlier this year that unusual wear on the engines could cause them to shut down in midflight, a massive explosion wasn't predicted. Five international airlines fly the A380 . Three of those airlines use the Rolls-Royce engines . And by the way, Qantas remains grounded, or its A380s are grounded. Rolls-Royce may have to replace half the engines used on the A380 planes that use the Rolls-Royce engines , 40 in all. Matt :

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