System failures in Qantas drama called "unprecedented"

WASHINGTON — Nobody trains for chaos like this. Out the pilots' left window, far above the ocean, an engine as big as a bus had disintegrated, blasting shrapnel holes in the superjumbo's wing. And now an overwhelming flood of computer alarms was warning the pilots that critical systems might be failing.

Two weeks after the pilots somehow landed their Qantas jetliner and its 450 passengers, their two-hour cockpit drama was described Thursday in an interview with the Associated Press by the vice president of the Australian and International Pilots Association.

"The amount of failures is unprecedented," said Richard Woodward, a fellow Qantas A380 pilot who has spoken to all five pilots. "There is probably a one in 100 million chance to have all that go wrong."

But it did.

Engine pieces sliced electric cables and hydraulic lines in the wing. Would the pilots still be able to fly the seven-story-tall plane?

The wing's forward spar — one of the beams that attaches it to the plane — was damaged as well. And the wing's two fuel tanks were punctured. As fuel leaked out, a growing imbalance was created between the left and right sides of the plane, he said.

The electrical power problems prevented the pilots from pumping fuel forward from tanks in the tail. The plane became tail heavy.

That may have posed the greatest risk, safety experts said. If the plane got too far out of balance, the Singapore-to-Sydney jetliner would lose lift, stall and crash.

And then there was that incredible stream of computer messages, 54 in all, alerting the pilots to system failures or warning of impending failures.

One warned that a ram air turbine — a backup power supply — was about to deploy, although that never did happen, Woodward said. The message was especially worrisome because the system deploys only when main power systems are lost. The smaller backup supply is able to power only vital aircraft systems.

That's "the last thing you need in that kind of situation," he said.

The pilots watched as computer screens filled, only to be replaced by new screenfuls of warnings, he said.

"I don't think any crew in the world would have been trained to deal with the amount of different issues this crew faced," Woodward said.

As luck would have it, there were five experienced pilots — including three captains — aboard the plane. The flight's captain, Richard de Crespigny, was being given his annual check ride — a test of his piloting skills — by another captain. That man was himself being evaluated by a third captain. There were also first and second officers, part of the normal three-pilot team. In all, the crew had over 100 years of flying experience.

De Crespigny concentrated on flying the plane, while the others dealt with the computer alarms and made announcements to the giant planeload of passengers, some of whom said they were frantically pointing to flames streaming from the engine. Working flat out, it took 50 minutes for the pilots work through all of the messages.

When pilots receive safety warnings, they are supposed to check the airline's operating manual and implement specific procedures. But with so many warnings, the Qantas pilots had to sort through and prioritize the most serious problems first.

It's likely that for some of the problems there were no procedures because no airline anticipates so many things going wrong at once, John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member said.

System failures in Qantas drama called "unprecedented" 11/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:22pm]

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