ABC TV probes Qantas Airbus A380 engine explosion on QF32

By David Flynn, March 28 2011
ABC TV probes Qantas Airbus A380 engine explosion on QF32


See our full story on last night's Four Corners report:

Rolls-Royce knew Qantas' A380 engines were faulty


The mid-air engine explosion on Qantas flight QF32 from Singapore – on no lesser aircraft than an Airbus A380, the pride of the Qantas fleet – created shockwaves felt throughout the aviation world.

It put not only Qantas' own safety record under scrutiny but also raised questions about the safety of the Airbus A380 and the Rolls-Royce engines which many airlines – including Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa – had chosen to power the superjumbo.

Tonight's episode of the ABC TV investigate current affairs program Four Corners, screening 8.30pm EST, examines how a single engine part almost brought down the pride of the Qantas fleet.

From the ABC TV press release for tonight's show:

When 440 passengers boarded Qantas Flight 32 bound for Sydney last November, they had every reason to feel confident. They were flying an airline boasting a unique safety record, on the world's newest, most sophisticated civilian aircraft, powered by prestigious Rolls Royce engines, famous for their reliability.

But six minutes into the flight all that would change, when an explosion sent pieces of searing hot metal shooting out of the engine faster than the speed of sound.

Four Corners: QF32 tells the compelling story of the frightening hours that followed.

From the passengers who looked on in horror as a human-sized hole appeared in one wing...

"I'm thinking it's black debris that's coming out of the plane, if it hits the fuselage we're gone" – Passenger Rosemary Hegarty the cabin crew:

"The rear of the engine was all smashed and damaged, and the wing was damaged and we could see we were losing fuel and then when my colleague said look, the kangaroo has gone, I knew that was an ... engine failure." – Customer Service Manager Michael von Reth

... and the pilots who drew on every ounce of their experience and training to bring the plane under control.

"Matt Hicks is a very competent operator with 15 or so years in Qantas, having flown a 767, 747, A330 and A380 ... I wouldn't have liked to have seen someone with very low hours trying to do that job on that day." – Second Officer Mark Johnson

And the horrified Qantas staff who tried to verify reports of deaths on the ground as pieces of engine rained down on an Indonesian primary school. Miraculously no-one was hurt, but a piece of shrapnel tore through a classroom ceiling just centimetres away from a 5-year-old boy.

The landing itself was nerve-wracking and fraught with difficulty. As pilot Matt Hicks recalls: "I actually had a swig of water cause I was getting a bit dry in the throat. (I) thought about my wife and kids for a while. Thought I better do a decent job here otherwise I'm not coming home ."

Changi air traffic controllers and firefighters recount how they watched in awe as the plane roared down the runway:

"...aircraft on final (approach) fuel streaming from the wing, I think I've not seen that in my last 26 years." – Air Traffic controller Tony Tang

But the nightmare wasn't over.  With fuel gushing from the aircraft the risk of fire was extreme and one engine refused to shut down. It was another very long hour before the passengers and crew were finally allowed off the plane.

As the passengers disembarked, the search for the cause of the explosion was already underway.  Qantas went into damage control and immediately pointed the finger at the august British engine maker Rolls Royce. What everyone wanted to know was, what caused the explosion and was it safe to fly on the A380?

Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson takes us through the hunt for clues as the investigators cordoned off the plane as if it were a crime scene. They describe the 'golden bullet' moment when the source of the fire was discovered. The program also reveals the problems Rolls Royce experienced with the engine prior to the Qantas incident.

Four Corners: QF32 offers a gripping forensic account of a truly terrifying mid-air incident and screens tonight, Monday March 28, at 8.30pm on ABC 1. The program can also be watched online at the Four Corners website and ABC TV iView.

The edition of Four Corners online has extended interviews with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, QF32 pilot Captain Richard De Crespigny and Qantas Head of Maintenance Operations Alan Milne.

(You can also read the latest findings of the Federal Government's Air Transport Safety Bureau at the site.)


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

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