Writing a book about the dramatic flight has been therapeutic for Captain Richard de Crespigny.THE perfectly cooked beef cheek on creamy mashed potato is coming apart on my fork, a metaphor for flight QF32, which almost fell apart not long after takeoff from Singapore bound for Sydney on November 4, 2010.
The Qantas A380 – the pride of the airline’s fleet – was rocked by an engine explosion that ripped the plane’s vital operating systems to shreds.
Pieces of the $400 million plane fell on Indonesia and within moments there were misinformed tweets around the world that it had crashed. Although it was still flying, there were holes in a wing, parts of the fuselage had been blown off and fuel was streaming out of ruptured tanks. The passengers could see the damage and the free-flowing fuel on a channel of their entertainment systems that relays views from a tail camera.
In the captain’s seat was Richard de Crespigny. ”It started like any other day,” he recalls. ”I had a simple breakfast of some eggs and juice at the Fairmont Hotel in Singapore about 7.30am, checked out of my room and boarded the crew bus for the airport.
”Before the flight, we [the pilots] went into a briefing room where we analyse things that will affect the flight, such as weather and, on this day, an erupting volcano [Mount Merapi, which killed more than 350]. Volcanic ash doesn’t mix with jet engines so I checked the position of the ash cloud and I took on extra fuel in case we had to divert.
”Everything was normal when we took off and four minutes into the flight, at 7000 feet [2130 metres], there were two bangs – boom, boom. It sounded like a backfire in a car and the aircraft started to swerve slightly. I knew it was an engine failure.”
De Crespigny says the loss of one engine isn’t cause for great concern when there are four and pilots are trained to cope with such incidents, which, he says, happen once in every 300,000 flying hours. However, this one was worse than anyone could imagine.
The cockpit turned into a frenzy of red warning lights and buzzing alarms but de Crespigny says there was an air of calm among the pilots, even when it became known over the next hour that 21 out of 22 operating systems (such as engines, brakes, hydraulics, pneumatics, pressurisation and cooling) were affected, many of them shredded by shrapnel that had travelled at twice the speed of sound. ”The aircraft has 250,000 sensors and probably half of them were complaining.”
De Crespigny believes a cracked pipe that spewed hot oil into an engine cavity was responsible for the explosion. A final report on the cause is due to be released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau this month.
De Crespigny, hoarse from a heavy schedule of radio and television interviews to promote his new book, QF32, is almost on the edge of his seat again as he recalls the near-disaster. The risotto with truffles in front of him has hardly been touched as we relive the drama.
At least he is talking. For months after the incident, he says, he was ”maxed out”.
”I was affected mentally. I was crying, my mind was frenetically busy reliving the flight and I was exhausted even though our flight had a happy outcome. There was a time when my wife and I drove to Newcastle and back [from their Sydney home] and during the four hours I think I said one thing. It was because I was constantly reliving the flight. Obviously that could not go on, so I got help for post-traumatic stress. I didn’t fly for four months but I’m fully fixed now.”
De Crespigny says that despite the fuel spilling out of the aircraft after the explosion, the remaining engines could fly for 3½ hours.
”That gave us plenty of time to sort things out. The fuel gave us time, and the time gave us options and we were able to work out a plan on how to fly the plane back to Singapore and to land [with extremely limited functionality].”
He describes the incident as a ”black swan” event. ”A black swan event is something that is highly improbable but has major consequences. As an example, it could be 9/11, but by definition you can’t think what a black swan event is because you can’t forecast it. But when the unthinkable happens, how you react is determined by your knowledge, training and experience,” says the captain, who has been with Qantas for 23 years and in the Royal Australian Air Force for 11 years.
”There is a need for good training of pilots, we are not just glorified bus drivers,” he says. De Crespigny, a self-described middle-ranking school student who grew up in Melbourne, says he had to excel to realise his dream of joining the RAAF.
”Motivation is everything,” he says. He recalls his first RAAF flight, in which his instructor put him into a potentially deadly spin towards the ground: ”I was put under great stress and that means I am now never comfortable in flight. I mean, I am happy to be flying, but at any time in flight you are only a few seconds from a possible disaster if something goes wrong.
”You need to be relaxed, but you shouldn’t be complacent,” he says as he continues to shuffle the truffles around the plate.
In a way, the book has been a form of therapy for de Crespigny. Qantas had the first right of edit on the manuscript but he says there were few changes. ”It is fundamentally a good story for Qantas and Airbus because our training and the aircraft stood up,” he says.
”We acknowledge Rolls-Royce [the maker of the engine] had a problem but they have a great history and an engine has never exploded like this in 200 million engine hours. I am proud to wear a Rolls-Royce tie when I do speaking engagements.”
A day after the QF32 incident, de Crespigny was a passenger on a flight taking him home when there was a familiar popping noise. You guessed it, the engine failed, but this time without an explosion.
”It was enough to turn us back to Singapore but it wasn’t dramatic,” he says. ”Things didn’t fall apart this time. I just looked at one of the flight crew, who rolled her eyes to say, ‘Here we go again’.”
■QF32, by Richard de Crespigny, Pan Macmillan, $34.99.
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