Story transcripts

Captain Fantastic

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reporter: Karl Stefanovic
Producer: Stephen Taylor

Qantas has long been revered as the safest airline in the world. But its reputation has taken a beating of late. Literally.

In November last year, an engine on one of its massive A380s exploded in mid-air. A lot of things went wrong that day. In fact, the flight crew had to deal with more than 60 separate system failures.

But as you'll see on Sunday night, a lot of things also went right, thanks largely to the man at the controls.

Only his cool head and keen instincts got that plane down safely. And when you hear the full story, you'll be amazed at how he did it.

PHOTOS: The massive Qantas A380 that fell from the sky

Full transcript:

KARL STEFANOVIC: At first glance, the Airbus A380 could be any jetliner hurtling down the runway, but this one just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's hard to believe something this large could ever leave the ground, until it does. The A380 is a massive feat in engineering - a marvel of ingenuity. It's the biggest passenger jet in our skies, and it's awesome. But, on November 4 last year, one of these Qantas planes came so close to crashing to the ground, so close to losing 469 people, it's unthinkable. Tonight, we go inside the most serious near-disaster Qantas has ever faced. A close-up look at what went horribly wrong with QF 32. And we meet the extraordinary flight crew, led by the unassuming captain, Richard de Crespigny, who managed to bring the A380 safely back to the ground.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Was it a smooth landing? Scale of 1 to 10, one of your finest?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Oh, I think it was my finest landing, absolutely. It was my finest landing. I think I should give up aviation now and leave on a high because I think it was a good landing under tough conditions.

KARL STEFANOVIC: You don't have to know Richard de Crespigny long to know that both in the air and on the sea, he makes a fine captain. Richard's from Sydney - a dad to Alex and Sophia, husband to Coral.

CORAL DE CRESPIGNY: He was the guy to be in that aircraft on that day. There is no-one, there is - I am so confident there is nobody in this world who knows that aircraft better than Rich. I would want him up there.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Richard de Crespigny's a 25-year veteran of Qantas. Before that, he flew in the Air Force. But what happened last November was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: I don't think an Airbus aircraft has ever been challenged as much as this has. I think a Rolls Royce engine never failed so spectacularly, with so much collateral damage. It was a flight that you could never train for. You might practice one or two emergencies, not 60.

KARL STEFANOVIC: QF 32 was only minutes into its flight out of Singapore but, unknown to anyone, there was a small oil leak in what's called the intermediate pressure turbine of engine number two. In the super-hot engine, the oil ignited and, within seconds, one of the 160kg turbine discs exploded at incredibly high speed. Two pieces smashed through the wing, severing the plane's controls, while a third did the same underneath the plane.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: It was actually two sounds like 'boom, boom!' Ah, all right, something's wrong. I'm going altitude hold and I'll go constant heading and I'm going to -

KARL STEFANOVIC: What's that?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: This is a master caution, master warning - something is seriously wrong.

KARL STEFANOVIC: In an instant, so many things went seriously wrong with the Qantas plane that even now, three months later, it's impossible to replicate in the A380 simulator.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Qantas 32, we have an engine failure in number two engine. We have fuel leaks from the left-hand wing.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Richard's first task was to make sure the crippled aircraft could still fly. Then he needed to find out what did and didn't work any more.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Engine number two, overheat and failure. Engines one and four degraded two levels in thrust. Electrically, the left-hand side of the aircraft was dead. We lost 50% of the hydraulic systems. The brakes underneath the wings were reduced to 30% braking efficiency, and anti-skid was inoperative. Fuel system, 3 tanks out of 11 functioned, no transfer system was available. No jettison system. We had multiple holes in the wing, which disrupted the airflow over the wing and caused the stall speed to increase.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Was anything actually working?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Ah, that's a good question. Every system was degraded.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Modern planes automatically send messages to the engineers on the ground, so the drama in the sky was being frantically tracked back in Sydney.

ALAN MILNE:It was a pretty hectic day, I can tell you, that one.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Qantas head of maintenance operations Alan Milne watched his computer screen go crazy, but at least he knew the A380 was still flying.

ALAN MILNE:I mean, I was one of the lucky ones. I was here, we had the information that the aircraft was stable and was at 7,000 feet, they were circling off Singapore there.

KARL STEFANOVIC: The A380 is still in Singapore today and seeing the damage close up gives you a better idea of how desperate the situation was in the air.

ALAN MILNE:I don't think you get prepared for seeing it in real life. It's just a substantial amount of damage.

KARL STEFANOVIC: This is the first time Richard and Alan have seen the plane since the incident and, quite frankly, it's a mess. When you see that?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Oh, that is significant, um.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Is that a shock to you?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: It is a shock.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Holes in the wing, severed control lines, and a fuselage splattered with debris. It's like someone's got a shotgun and gone 'bang'...

ALAN MILNE:Yeah.

KARL STEFANOVIC: ..onto the fuselage.

ALAN MILNE:It's that sort of pattern.

CLARE RYAN: There was just a loud 'bang' and a shudder, and then it - slightly more stressful when the piece of wing at the front that had mashed up flew back across the top of the wing and back behind the plane. And I had an elderly couple beside me that I couldn't really say, "Hey, you should have seen that! That's not good."

KARL STEFANOVIC: Unluckily for her, passenger Clare Ryan, in seat 74A, probably had the best view of the engine explosion and the damage it caused the left-hand side of the aircraft. And, from what she saw, it's no wonder she feared the worst. I thought it was good that I could still see the land because, when the plane fell out of the sky, at least it wouldn't take them too long to recover our body and my mother to bury me.

KARL STEFANOVIC: You thought the absolute worst?

CLARE RYAN: Yes, but just more practically - "Well, that's OK - they'll find me at least."

KARL STEFANOVIC: But Clare hadn't counted on Richard de Crespigny and his team in the cockpit. He had co-pilot Matt Hicks and second officer Mark Johnson helping out. And there was more good luck that day - senior Qantas captains Harry Wubben and David Evans were on the flight deck, doing routine checks. Between them, the crew had a 140 years of piloting skill.

DAVID EVANS: It would be hard to find a more A380 experienced crew on the planet.

DAVID EVANS ON P.A: I do apologise, I'm sure you are aware we have a technical issue with our number two engine.

KARL STEFANOVIC: All that experience might explain this... DAVID EVANS ON P.A: The aircraft is secure at this time.

KARL STEFANOVIC: ..David Evans's soothing address to the passengers.

DAVID EVANS ON P.A: The aircraft is flying safely and we'll get back to you very shortly with further information. DAVID EVANS: The average passenger today understand aeroplanes more than ever before, and you can't fob them off with a technical issue.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: It was a profound PA, and it really did settle the cabin crew and the passengers.

KARL STEFANOVIC: But that's not to say things weren't tense. The second officer, Mark Johnson, was sent back into the main cabin to get a better look at the damaged wing and engine. He was shocked at what he saw.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: I think his words were, "The engine's stuffed, we've blown."

KARL STEFANOVIC: Are you sure about 'stuffed'?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: I think it was 'stuffed'. It might have actually been a little bit more severe. MARK JOHNSON: Is this a family show? Yeah, I think there might have been the odd expletive.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: And he said there was a hole in the wing, there's fuel gushing out of the wing, and the engine is in a bad state.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY ON 2-WAY: We require to hold for at least another 30 minutes before making an approach.

KARL STEFANOVIC: In the air, the list of problems was so long, Richard de Crespigny even had to contemplate the unimaginable.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: As more checks came up, you started to question how many systems will I have left? Has the whole aircraft failed? I thought, let's protect this aircraft at the most basic level possible and that was to position it within gliding range of Singapore, and that's what we did.

KARL STEFANOVIC: That's a big call, gliding an A380.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Gliding an A380, and you prepare for the worst and you hope for the best, but the preparation in this case was putting us within gliding range of Singapore and that's something I've not done since I was in the air force.

KARL STEFANOVIC: This was monumental?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: This was monumental.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Eventually, after almost an hour and three-quarters, the flight crew decided to attempt a landing.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY ON 2-WAY RADIO): Qantas 32, you're cleared for final approach, runway 20 centre.

KARL STEFANOVIC: There might have been five pilots, but getting the jet back on the ground safely came down to one man's skill.

KARL STEFANOVIC: So, you have to time this absolutely perfectly?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: This is the time for a good landing.

KARL STEFANOVIC: We're in the simulator, but it still feels very real. It's a 4km-long runway, but it does not look like it from here.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: No, and when we're doing 200 miles per hour, it certainly doesn't feel like it, either.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Richard's landing, even in a broken aeroplane, is as smooth as they come.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: And we're onto the ground. I use maximum footbrakes now because the autobrakes have failed.

KARL STEFANOVIC: As the emergency vehicles swarmed over the aircraft, back in Australia, news of the incident was spreading, but much of it was wrong. Richard's wife, Coral, didn't even know there'd been an explosion until she got a call from Richard's boss at Qantas.

CORAL DE CRESPIGNY: He said, "I need to tell you that Richard's safe "and he's on the ground." And I said, "Why are you telling me this?" And then he said, "Well, there's been an incident." So I immediately turned on the news, then I saw that it wasn't - well, they had assumed there'd been a crash.

KARL STEFANOVIC: So, there was a time there where you thought maybe he's crashed?

CORAL DE CRESPIGNY: There was, oh yes, very short second, yes. You see the news and they're saying a crash and, well, you know, I started to cry.

KARL STEFANOVIC: But when the details emerged about what really happened, what ran through your mind?

CORAL DE CRESPIGNY: I'm just so glad he didn't stuff up that landing!

KARL STEFANOVIC: So are a lot of other people!

CORAL DE CRESPIGNY: Yeah.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Clare Ryan is one of those people.

CLARE RYAN: Fantastic man, fantastic. And I think maybe a lesser man might have not handled - wouldn't have handled it so well.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Would you fly with him again?

CLARE RYAN: Without a doubt. I'd like to know when his next flights are. I'll try and book it out! What's his timetable?

KARL STEFANOVIC: How many passengers owe their lives to you?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Oh, Karl, um, but I can't answer that question.

KARL STEFANOVIC: There'll be people watching this story who will say, "That guy is a dead-set hero for what he did that day!" How does that sit with you?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Well, I don't really like having the 'hero' term put on me. Point one, I was just doing my job. Point two, I was supported by an extraordinary crew with lots of experience. However, I was the person who signed off on the aeroplane. I would ultimately be responsible if people died, and I'm so proud of everyone and all the teams that helped that day. I was proud to be in command of that aircraft.

KARL STEFANOVIC: After three months of extensive testing and investigations, Qantas is now completely confident Rolls Royce has fixed the engine faults on the superjet, and that a tortured time can finally be put in the past.

KARL STEFANOVIC: Is the A380 safe?

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: Absolutely. This was the biggest testament to Airbus. Some people might think the aircraft collapsed under the onslaught, but no aircraft is ever designed to take the beating that this aircraft got. The wing was cluster-bombed. The aircraft had phenomenal damage in all systems, and it didn't just recover, it performed brilliantly. It is indestructible.

KARL STEFANOVIC: They said that about the 'Titanic'.

RICHARD DE CRESPIGNY: 'Titanic' sank.
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