July 25, 2012
"Like a boom" ... Qantas captain Richard de Crespigny reveals the story behind the A380 that suffered an engine explosion in a new book. Photo: Reuters
It could have been one of the world's worst air disasters - a Qantas A380 had left Singapore on its way to Sydney when a mid-air explosion shattered one of the aircraft's engines.
Despite the chaos that could have ensued, captain Richard de Crespigny remained calm and landed the plane, bringing all 469 passengers and crew safely to the tarmac.
That was November 4, 2010. Now, upon the release of his book QF32, the 55-year-old pilot recalls the motions he went through on that potentially-fatal flight.
"The sound of the engine failure was really like a backfire in a car - like a boom - so that is something we just react to instinctively with procedures that we learn in the simulator..." de Crespigny said.
"So that is not a surprise, it's not shocking. It doesn't cause a panic reaction at all."
A second boom, however, about half a second later, was unusual. It brought up questions of whether one or two engines had been affected, he said, and how severe the damage was.
"But it really doesn't matter about those thoughts," de Crespigny said: "What you have to do is fly the aeroplane; you have to aviate.
"There's no fight or flight syndrome.
"In the flight I didn't think about my wife or children when I was in the air. We weren't panicking."
After the near disaster, Qantas temporarily grounded its A380 fleet and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau began investigations.
QF32 was just four minutes out of Singapore's Changi Airport when the explosions occurred on what was the largest and most advanced passenger plane ever built.
A fire was sparked and the engine disabled, while three other engines were degraded. The hydraulics, electrics, brakes, fuel, flight controls and landing gear systems were all compromised.
During all of this, de Crespigny and his crew focused on keeping the plane at a controlled speed and above nearby mountains.
"Although these explosions had happened there was absolute silence in the flight deck while we sorted out that the aircraft was flying," said de Crespigny.
"Then we went into our procedures, which is just standard. Every pilot knows them and again we were busy but there was no panic."
De Crespigny and the other Qantas pilots with him went through about 125 checklists, an amount they don't train for in the simulator.
"We were all in a state of disbelief that this could actually be happening," de Crespigny writes in his book. "We were worried, but our training kicked in."
As the flight deck went through procedures, public addresses were made to calm the passengers.
De Crespigny, who had been flying for 35 years, said foremost in their minds was that the passengers had concerns and needed information.
"About every 10 minutes we made a public address; the whole time, over four hours," he said. "So the passengers were very informed and happy, well as happy as they could be."
Engine failures are very infrequent, explained de Crespigny, with one occurring every 300,000 engine hours.
Only one in every 3.5 pilots will ever experience an engine failure during their career, he added, while crashes are exceedingly rare.
He says that among the world's top 25 airlines, there is only one crash for every 13 million flights.
After disaster was averted and QF32 landed back in Singapore, it was another four months before de Crespigny would be at the helm of a Qantas plane.
"Qantas said 'look Richard you've had a tough, tough week, why don't you take a week off' and I said 'thanks, I think I'll take four months'," he recalled.
"...I knew that I really wasn't fit to evaluate my suitability to go flying so I said to the fleet manager, 'I have to ground myself, I'm not ready'... and you don't want to have a distracted pilot."
During that four months off, he saw a psychologist three times to talk about the incident and treat traumatic stress.
When asked if he ever suffered nightmares, he said never but that his mind was busy reenacting the flight, "recycling through".
"I thought 'could I have done something better? Should I have done something differently'? And I think that's a normal reaction."
So was there anything he would have changed about his handling of the disaster?
"I managed to suck dry the brains of all the other pilots - every bit of knowledge came out of everyone and today I don't think I'd change anything. I'm very pleased with that."
De Crespigny said he felt great when he finally got back into the cockpit.
"At the end of three months I was looking up at aircraft that flew overhead, which is really a good sign for pilots.
"I then spent a month getting ready to go back flying, working in the simulator, and so at the fourth month I had been trained back up to the standard I was happy with and I was really keen to go back flying and I've had a great time ever since..."
QF32 by Richard de Crespigny is published by Pan Macmillan, rrp $34.99.