Friday 3 September 2010

After watching an engine explode on QF74, I'm glad to be alive

How many times have you actually thought you are going to die?  And I don't mean one day when you are old, but right now in a messy and spectacular way?  I recently incremented my count from 0 to 1 on the now infamous Qantas Flight 74 from San Francisco to Sydney.

At 10:30pm on the 30 of August I boarded QF74 at San Francisco airport bound for Sydney.  We took off at about 11pm and the first 30 min or so of the flight was totally uneventful.  I was stoked that I had a whole row of three seats to myself, and had picked up a movie where I had left it on the flight over to the US three days ago.  Things were going to change drastically in the next few minutes.

I felt a vibration and a rumble, which caused me to glance out the window to my right.  At that moment the engine furthest out on the wing (number 4) exploded.  There is no other word for it.  It wasn't just a shower of sparks, it was an explosion - it is an amazing tribute to modern engineering that the engine casing can contain such an explosion.  Well, mostly, as the photos below show.

To get some idea of what I'm talking about, take a look at some engine explosion tests on youtube - these are pretty close to what I saw.  The plume of flame didn't extend out as far from the front of the engine, probably due to our airspeed.  The light from the explosion lit up the whole wing (remember this was night time), and I'd estimate the flames extended about 10m back from the engine itself.

The flames continued for a few seconds - I imagine until fuel was cut off.  Once the flames stopped, a continuous stream of sparks poured from the back of the engine.  I looked around to see if anyone else had seen it.  I was sure the wing had been damaged and we were about to plunge into the ocean.  I got into the brace position (no kidding).  Most people in the cabin were still completely unaware of what had happened.

Since we didn't seem to be dropping drastically in altitude I figured the wing must be reasonably OK, and at this point I was more worried that the pilots actually knew what had happened.  Talking to other passengers afterward, we all had a feeling of helplessness at this point.

I think I said something like 'holy shit the engine just exploded', and other people in the cabin could tell by the expressions of those who were sitting on the right hand side of the plane, that something was wrong.

The woman across the aisle who was travelling alone asked if she could hold my hand.

The captain came on the PA and said there had been a problem with the number 4 engine.  I can't remember exactly what he said, I was just glad he obviously knew what had happened.  Shortly after a pilot (who I think was probably the first officer), came down and looked out at the engine from the exit row a couple of rows behind me.

Justin, who was on his honeymoon and sitting in the seat in front of me, had the presence of mind to pull out his camera and start recording.  This is the footage you have probably seen in news bulletins all over the world - I told him to sell it and not give it away for free, so I hope he did :)

Kristen, whose hand I was holding, moved into the seat beside me and we watched the GPS track of the plane as the plane circled to dump fuel before returning to San Francisco.  I think we spent around 45min dumping fuel, with sparks continuing to pour from the back of the engine.  The plane was vibrating most of this time, which the captain explained was due to a change in aerodynamics caused by the failed engine.

I have to say the hosties and the captain were the picture of professionalism throughout the entire experience.  The hosties were moving through the cabin reassuring people, and saying 'we can fly on one engine if we have to, nothing to worry about'.

Reactions in the cabin ranged from calm/denial, a woman opposite me went back to sleep(!), to fairly freaked out (Kristen), and everything in between.  I was full of adrenaline, but reasonably calm, and beginning to wonder just how long this was going to make my trip home.  There was plenty of Aussie bravado going around too - "it's only one engine", that kind of "that's not a knife, this is a knife" attitude that seems to be so ingrained in us somehow.

I found the utter calm and chirpy-ness of the hosties slightly disconcerting - would they be like that if we were about to die?  But I realise they were just doing their job, and credit to them.

A cheer and a round of applause went up after we landed.  I'm so glad the problems happened so early in the flight.  I can't imagine having to watch sparks pour out of that engine for hours if it had happened in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  San Francisco to Sydney is one of the longest non-stop flights in the world, over a whole lot of ocean.

The fire trucks tailed us down the runway, and we held back from the terminal while a quick inspection of the engine was made.  This didn't take too long, and we soon moved up to the gate.

We waited on the plane for a significant amount of time, probably about an hour, while cargo and baggage was unloaded.  Balancing a 747 is apparently quite delicate - you need the weight of the passengers to hold the plane in place and stop it from tipping over as weight is removed from the body (cargo and baggage).  I guess they must have been unloading differently to normal, or this was a lie, since I've gotten on and off plenty of planes and this is the first I have heard of the possibility of tipping over.  The hosties couldn't leave their doors (some sort of emergency procedure I guess), so the captain told us we could help ourselves to drinks from the galley.

I estimate we got off the plane at about 3am, and it took another hour and a half before we got to the Hyatt, where Qantas was putting us up, via a hotel shuttle.  By this stage we all knew each other quite well, and it was disappointing the hotel bar was shut, because most of us found it hard to get to sleep.

Qantas re-booked all our flights overnight, and by the afternoon of the next day everyone was on their way back to Sydney via LA.  To add insult to injury: American Airlines was so slow at check-in I missed the first LA connection, the Australian Customs computer system was down - resulting in huge queues, Qantas lost my bags, and I missed my Australian domestic connection because I was waiting for my bags to show.  What a ride.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:
The Qantas jet engine that exploded on Tuesday after take-off from San Francisco had not been inspected after safety warnings issued two weeks ago.
The safety bulletins in Australia, Europe and the US had warned of ''uncontained'' engine failure - the technical term for when components are sprayed out of the engine enclosure during a malfunction.
The airworthiness directives were issued for Rolls-Royce RB211 engines, the model fitted to the Qantas 747-400 that was forced to make an emergency landing at San Francisco.
So we might have cause to be angry at Qantas, if they knew about this problem and took no action.  In terms of their response and handling of the situation once it had occurred, I really can't fault them.  They also gave everyone on the flight a cash payment as compensation :)

I didn't know a hole had been punched in the engine until I read media reports days later, but while we were waiting on the ground I said to Justin that if there had been any shrapnel from the explosion, we would have been the ones who bought it first.  Luckily the hole was punched on the other side of the engine.

Glad to be alive.

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