Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Australians Simulate Airbus 380 Near Disaster

Last fall, shortly before Qantas Flight 32 gave a hairy, scary ride to 446 people on the Airbus A380, I was invited to tour the Airbus Training Center in Miami, Florida, given a detailed tutorial on the Airbus design and safety philosophy and  just for fun - allowed to pilot the A340 simulator.

These high-tech simulators can be programmed to fly any flight when the data has been captured, so we flew USAirways Flight 1549, better known now as the "miracle on the Hudson". This was, at the time, the most famous example in aviation of turning chicken s**t into chicken salad.

Airbus and Chesley Sullenberger may differ over how important the fly-by-wire design was to the successful water landing of the A320 after geese disabled both of the airliner's engines. But the point is that the opportunity to analyze and re-analyze the flight through simulators is beneficial, hindsight being 20/20 and all that.

Photo courtesy ATSB
Of course, the tan I acquired in Miami was barely fading when USAirways Flight 1549 was eclipsed on November 4, 2010 by the near disaster of Qantas Flight 32, the result of another engine failure, this one endogenous. Within weeks, investigators with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau determined that a burst engine disk on the left inboard engine was the result of a manufacturing defect in the production of the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine. 

So the passengers and flight crews who have or will in the future be traveling on the mammoth A380 - now the world's largest passenger jet - should take comfort in knowing that the ATSB has been flying simulations too. 

I've been blogging for a while about how this accident seems to implicate more than the engines, it raises concern about the airplane itself. Capt. Richard de Crespigny, commander of the five man crew (and who now can choose among several media-bestowed nicknames, Capt. Courageous, Capt. Marvel and my personal favorite, Capt. Fantastic) flew the plane in crisis with this help for two hours that day in November. He continues to praise the A380 for holding up while error messages spat out of the flight computer at a startling clip. Still, the overriding question remains; why did so many things go wrong?

In an announcement today, the ATSB promised it is still looking for the answer. By examining the damage to the plane and its systems it hopes "to understand its effect on those systems and the impact on flight safety. That includes their effect on the aircraft's handling and performance and on crew workload."

The airlines that fly the Airbus A380, Lufthansa, Air France, Emirates, Singapore, and soon, others, consistently fly them with two-person crews. Only luck or Providence is responsible for the fact that on the Qantas flight five highly experienced airmen were on the flight deck trying to sort out the problems.

So before the investigators wrap up the Flight 32 investigation, they should be darn sure Qantas Flight 32 isn't written up as a near-disaster, successfully completed by a crew of heroes and an exceptional plane. They should fly the simulator and make sure that this airplane isn't too big and too complicated for two pilots to handle when things go wrong.
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