Thursday, November 11, 2010

Balls of Steel Required for Investigation of A380 and Its Engines

Damage to the left wing of Qantas A380
The grounding of Airbus A380 airplanes sporting Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines was certainly warranted following the in flight disintegration of an engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore a week ago. The Airbus near-disaster is being treated with the kind of respect and attention not usually given to events in which everybody goes home unscathed.

Air travelers from Auckland to the Big Apple are watching, anticipating that investigators will determine not just what happened to cause the engine to come apart at 6,000 feet, but what the event demonstrates about how the world's largest airliner holds up in such a scenario. So far, the answer appears to be, not well.

I was with Jörg Handwerg, (a Flying Lessons reader) and pilot with Lufthansa, when I first heard the details about what came undone on the A380. Right away, I wondered about that outboard engine. Its been widely reported that after the left inboard engine exploded, the pilots could not change the thrust setting on the outboard which had been set on climb. I'm having some trouble imagining the flight characteristics of a 300-500 ton airplane with this curious combination of engine limitations, but that's not what troubled me. I was thinking about fire.

One engine is roaring full throttle, another is spewing shrapnel, the wing has a gaping hole, possibly including a rupture to a fuel tank. Well, it doesn't take a aeronautical engineer to put those together and conclude there may be a helluva fire hazard there.

Then today, the Australian newspaper Herald Sun publishes a list of follow-on effects of the failure that included


  • unable to shutdown number 1 engine using the fire switch
and
  • fuel leak in left wing tank.

Fuel leak? Lack of fire protection?

Kudos to the pilots on the flight deck who brought this leviathan back to the Singapore Changi International airport safely. Kudos to the first responders (balls of steel there) who raced to the scene and tried to extinguish 70,000 pounds of thrust on the runaway number one engine using fire hoses.

The 466 people on board Qantas Flight 32 were well served by these folks. The rest of the traveling public is depending on the investigators to look beyond the starring role of the Rolls Royce engine in this drama. They need to ask tough questions about the whole laundry list of items that failed because of the uncontained engine failure, including those that could challenge the assumptions used in the design of the engine and the airplane.

Investigators, gird your loins. Balls of steel will be required.
Post a Comment