INTERNATIONAL investigations have begun into the cause of an engine explosion on a Qantas flight, as the grounding of the carrier’s A380 fleet forced delays to services.
Passengers have also told of the “anxious calm” aboard flight QF32 after one of its engines exploded and shut down shortly after takeoff from Singapore yesterday, showering debris on the Indonesian island of Batam.
The huge aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing at Singapore’s Changi airport and its 433 passengers will be flown to Sydney today aboard a special flight.
Qantas has grounded its fleet of six A380s following the incident.
Singapore Airlines last night briefly followed suit, suspending flights by its 11 A380s before clearing them again this morning after checks were carried out.
Other airlines operating the A380 – Emirates, Qatar Airways, Lufthansa and Air France-KLM – have not grounded their fleets.
Qantas, meanwhile, is making arrangements for passengers hit by delays of up to 24 hours on services between Australia and Los Angeles, and on flights to Singapore, as a result of the grounding of its A380s.
More than 70 Qantas international flights, serviced by other fleet types, will operate into and out of Australia today as scheduled, the carrier said.
Qantas said investigations had begun with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, which makes the engines on its A380s, to determine what happened.
Qantas said the suspension of A380 flights will remain in effect until the outcome of an investigation into the incident.
“Qantas has liaised closely with Rolls-Royce and Airbus overnight in an effort to understand the cause of the incident,” Qantas said in a statement overnight.
France’s air accident investigation agency has also launched an inquiry.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said the airline’s investigation into the incident “will take as long as we need to take until we are comfortable”.
“It looks like it’s an uncontained engine failure, but it’s too early to speculate and will involve us doing a detailed investigation with the manufacturer Airbus and the manufacturer of the engine, Rolls Royce,” he added.
Investigators are also heading to Batam island, near Singapore, where debris from the Airbus engine’s cowling was scattered, causing damage but no injuries.
It’s the third emergency involving the A380 and its Rolls-Royce engines in just over a year, raising concerns of potential further delays in the development of its next generation aircraft, the A350.
Airbus, which is betting its future on the commercial viability of the A380, said the Qantas incident had been “significant” but stressed the plane was safe to fly on three engines.
“We are not playing down the incident but it is covered in the certification procedures,” a spokesman for the French-based company said, as France’s air accident investigation agency launched a probe.
More details have emerged of the drama aboard QF32 after passengers heard a loud explosion, and saw a hole torn in one wing.
Passenger Christopher Lee said there was an “anxious calm” on board the aircraft after the frightening event.
“The cabin crew were very good at keeping us all informed, but trying to keep us all calm as well,” he told Fairfax Radio Network.
Mr Lee, who was travelling with his wife and seven-month-old daughter, said that soon after hearing two loud bangs, passengers by the window quickly alerted the cabin crew to smoke and flames coming out of one of the four engines.
“So the word got around very quickly as to what the problem was,” he said.
“Part of the engine had come away and torn through the left wing and pierced the wing itself.
“I wasn’t sitting near the window, so I have absolutely no idea what it was that caused the shake, in fact I thought we had hit a very big flock of birds, but it seemed a little bit too hard for that, so I was certainly concerned about what it was,” he said.
“It’s not good when you’re at any altitude and you look out and see there’s a hole in your wing.”
Mr Lee praised the flight captain, who he said was very quick to jump in and explain the situation.
Qantas has ordered a total of 20 A380s from Airbus, making it the second-largest customer of the superjumbo behind Dubai-based carrier Emirates, according to its website.
In September 2009, a Singapore Airlines A380 bound for Asia had to return to Paris after one of its engines failed. In August, a Lufthansa jet flying from Tokyo to Frankfurt shut down one of its engines because of a loss of oil pressure.
The Qantas superjumbo involved in yesterday’s incident had been in service since September 2008 and had logged 8,165 flight hours, the manufacturer said.
Several hours after the incident Rolls-Royce recommended that “basic precautionary checks” be carried out on the Trent 900 engines powering some A380 models.
Grounding the A380 fleets could have significant financial repercussions for Qantas, depending on how long the investigation takes.
The huge aircraft can fly up to 500 people, so finding enough seats for stranded passengers will likely be difficult and may result in cancellations.
Howard Wheeldon, a strategist at BGC Partners and longtime aerospace observer, said that it is “normal practice” for other airlines to keep flying their aircraft unless otherwise advised by the plane or the engine manufacturer.
He also stressed the incident doesn’t mean there is something intrinsically wrong with the engine, as the failure could have been caused by birds or debris hitting the aircraft, or stem from a problem with fuel, pumps or lubricant.
Mr Wheeldon concluded that the incident is unlikely to harm A380 sales, though it is bad news for a program already dogged by production delays and cost overruns.
Peter Marosszeky, an aircraft engineer and maintenance expert at the University of New South Wales, said the A380 is regarded by pilots and engineers as a safe plane.
He says it is engineered to keep flying even with serious engine problems.
“The aircraft could most probably actually struggle with two engines. Four engines are a real good insurance for the aircraft,” he said.
“It is a major concern though especially if there is a fire but in this particular case, it would appear that the event was fairly spontaneous and it was over in a reasonably quick time.
“Fortunately it was on the left hand side of the inboard engine which didn’t create any problem for the fuselage or the rest of the aeroplane.”