Two thousand metres above Indonesia, smoke trailing from a shattered engine and with holes punched in his port wing, Richard Champion de Crespigny was an island of calm.
The captain of Qantas flight QF32, responsible for 466 passengers and crew aboard the world’s biggest airliner and with an emergency no other Airbus A380 pilot had faced, switched on his intercom.
“I do apologise. I’m sure you are aware we have a technical issue with our No 2 engine … I’m sure you are aware we are not proceeding to Sydney at this stage. The aircraft is flying safely at this stage. Thank you for your patience.”
In the cabin behind, flight attendants moved among anxious passengers who had been rocked by two explosions and a shudder that ran through the fuselage of the double-decked superjumbo.
Captain de Crespigny, a veteran of 35 years, was commanding a giant of cutting-edge technology that started flying commercially only three years ago: his aircraft, with more than 8000 hours in the air, entered service in September 2008 as Qantas’ first A380.
Shutting down the damaged engine, Captain de Crespigny broadcast a PAN-PAN alert – warning of urgency rather than the imminent danger of a Mayday – asked for a priority landing and, with the jet trailing smoke, circled Singapore dumping fuel and preparing to land.
Aviation experts agree there was no immediate danger of the A380 crashing. It has been rigorously tested, and it can fly on two of its four Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines.
Within minutes of lifting off from Singapore’s Changi airport at 9.56am local time, bound for Sydney, the aircraft was rocked by loud bangs and a shudder through the cabin.
The casing of the No 2 engine, closest to the left side of the fuselage, shattered, shooting holes in the wing and scattering debris on to the Indonesian island of Batam below.
One report said a large fragment narrowly missed a school.
“I heard a bit of a shudder and then there was a massive explosion and we saw wires sticking up and parts of the wing had blown off,” one Melbourne passenger, Sue Wooster, told Channel Seven.
“Then you were waiting for what was going to happen next – is the plane going to do down, or the engines going to stop running?”
Her son Tyler, 16, said he heard a sound like a big gunshot, and a hole appear in the wing: “You could see how the wing had peeled off.”
Passenger James Henderson told ABC radio he was also shaken.
“There was a serious bang which got the attention of a woman just on our left who was overlooking the engine, who started to scream, ‘there’s smoke coming out of the engine – there’s a hole in the engine’,” he said.
As cabin staff moved around the cabin to calm passengers, Captain de Crespigny continued giving his reassurances while he prepared to land.
“The pilot handled this superbly,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said yesterday.
German passenger Ulf Waschbusch agreed: “The crew helped tremendously. I felt in good hands. Qantas did a great job in keeping us safe.”
The landing enhanced the pilot’s reputation for calm under pressure.
“I fly on many international flights, and it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve had,” Sydney passenger Christopher Lee told ABC radio.
This was no surprise to Captain de Crespigny’s wife, Coral.
“That’s just the way Richard is,” she told the Australian newspaper. “He is calm by nature, but he is a very special man, an intelligent man.
“He’s passionate about his job, and he’s very competent.
“I was not at all surprised to hear how calm he was when talking to the passengers. “I’m sure he would have been thinking, ‘what words would I like to hear from the captain if I were a passenger’.
“All I can say is that the passengers are very lucky that Richard was their pilot.”
The landing, though smooth, was heavy, and Mr Joyce said yesterday that several tyres burst as the A380 travelled down the runway – to more problems.
The outer No 1 engine would not shut down for reasons engineers are still trying to determine.
With the fire risk high and surrounded by emergency tenders, passengers had to stay in their seats as systems were shut down, enduring what one, Lars Sandberg, described as “like a sauna”.
“We had to switch off all the electronics,” he told the ABC. “There were no buses for a long time so we were stuck in the sweltering heat.”
Investigators from five countries are probing the QF32 emergency.
Yesterday, attention was focusing on a possible failure of the advanced materials used in the giant Rolls Royce engine, or an issue with its design, as the most likely cause of the drama that has grounded the Qantas entire fleet of Airbus A380s.
The airline is now racing to clear a backlog of 1200 passengers waiting in hotels in Los Angeles and London.
It is using Boeing 747 and other jets for this while engineers check engines on its other five A380s.
Mr Joyce said yesterday that if no problems were found and Qantas was convinced there were no safety issues, the remaining fleet could be back in the air within 24 to 48 hours.
He also said that Qantas had complied with an airworthiness direction issued three months ago by the European Aviation Safety Agency.
This related to possible problems with the turbines of the A380’s engines.