Bad Week for Jet Engines

Airbus and Rolls Royce are having a bad week this week, Qantas Airlines, too, to a degree.  On Thursday Qantas Flight 32 departed Singapore’s Changi Airport shortly before 10 a.m. enroute to Sydney, Australia.

Six minutes after takeoff, the number two engine experienced an uncontained failure, something very rare in aviation.  According to those on the airplane, there was a loud bang, followed by a second explosion and then passengers could see the resulting damage to the left wing.

On the ground on the small island of Batam, people reported hearing the explosion and seeing smoke trail from the large airliner.  Then engine parts and other debris from the airliner landed on a school and on a shopping center. 

When the Trent 900 engine on the Airbus came apart, it blew part of the cowling off the airplane and other debris apparently punctured the wing.  The direction of the explosion was vertical, not horizontal.  This was fortunate for those sitting in the rotational plane of the engine; had the disintegration of the engine been in the direction of the fuselage, passengers could have been injured or killed.

After the event, one passenger reported passengers remained calm as the pilot reported they would be dumping fuel and returning to Singapore for the emergency landing.  It evidently took a long time to prepare for the emergency landing and dump down to landing weight; the landing occurred at 11:46, an hour and 44 minutes after the failure.

An uncontained engine failure is a rarity in the aviation industry.  However, there have been four incidents over the last two years which was enough of a trend to cause the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to issue urgent safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Prior to the event this week, an ACT Cargo Airbus A300B4 suffered an engine failure during takeoff at Manama, Bahrain on April 10, 2010.  The crew aborted the aborted the takeoff and evacuated the aircraft.

On December 17, 2009, a Jett8 Cargo Boeing 747-200F climbing through 7,000 feet above ground level (agl) lost an engine causing the crew to return to land at Changi, Singapore.

An Arrow Cargo McDonnell Douglas DC-10F departing Manaus, Brazil on March 26, 2009, lost an engine about 30 minutes after takeoff.  After securing the engine, the flight crew diverted to Medellin, Columbia.

A Boeing 747-300 operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines experienced an engine failure on July 4, 2008.  This event occurred during initial climb after takeoff from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

In the last couple of years, the uncontained engine failures which prompted the action by the NTSB did not result in any fatalities.  The events of the past two years were serious, but the flight crews were fortunate to have not suffered more severe damage to their aircraft. 

During the last 20 years, the NTSB has 14 non-fatal reports of uncontained engine failures in the United States.  These incidents resulted in no more than inconvenienced travel schedules. 

While an uncontained turbine engine failure is serious, chances of it happening to your flight is very low.  The one thing you can do to help yourself is to never sit in the plane of rotation of the engine.

In other words, sit in front of or behind the engines.  Never next to them. 


© 2010 J. Clark

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