Lauren Frayer Contributor
(Nov. 4) — Qantas has grounded its entire fleet of the new A380 jumbo jets after an in-flight drama in which terrified passengers heard an explosion and onlookers saw debris falling out of the sky. The plane carrying 459 people made an emergency landing today in Singapore and miraculously, no one was hurt.
The Australian airliner, bound for Sydney, suffered “significant engine failure” shortly after takeoff from Singapore, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told a news conference, according to The Daily Telegraph. “We’re not going to take any risks with passenger safety, and as a precaution, we’re suspending the flights of the A380 aircraft until we’re comfortable that we understand the reasons for this.”
It’s the first major problem for the double-decker Airbus, which began commercial flights three years ago as the biggest jetliner in the world. Outfitted with four state-of-the-art Rolls Royce engines, the planes can carry up to 840 passengers and cut travel time on long-haul flights by several hours.
Today’s emergency landing comes as the global aviation community is already jittery over two cargo bombs intercepted in Dubai and England last week, amid speculation they were designed to blow up planes in flight. But officials say the Qantas drama, while still being investigated, is thought to be because of mechanical problems rather than possible terrorism.
The Qantas incident also unfolded over parts of Indonesia, where the massive Mount Merapi volcano has sent lava and ash high into the atmosphere, snarling some airline paths and canceling local flights. In 1982, a British Airways flight suffered engine failure over Indonesia because of volcanic ash, plunging thousands of feet before its engines miraculously restarted. Indonesian aviation officials and a Qantas spokeswoman told MSNBC it’s unclear whether volcanic ash might have caused today’s engine failure.
Huge scraps of metal the size of a door rained down on the Indonesian island of Batam near Singapore. “I heard a big explosion at around 9:15 a.m. and saw a commercial passenger plane flying low in the distance with smoke on one of its wings,” MSNBC quoted a local resident as saying. “The debris started falling on my house.”
Thousands of feet up, passengers on the plane also described a harrowing journey.
“Everything was going smoothly in the first 15 minutes and then there was a sharp bang. I thought some metal container fell down in the cargo area, but the carriage started to vibrate and there was a bit of a smoke,” a Scottish passenger, Lars Sandberg, told the BBC. “People around me were visibly shaken and we all realized that whatever happened wasn’t normal. There was a mother with two children who was quite worried.”
He said the captain came on the plane’s intercom every few minutes to reassure passengers that the problem was being investigated, and the plane circled for about an hour to burn off fuel before landing. “When we got off and saw the engine itself and the back casing burnt off, that was pretty scary,” Sandberg said. “I’m just happy to be alive.”
Qantas owns six Airbus A380s, which are supposed to be the airline’s flagship model. Today’s flight originated in London, stopped in Singapore and was supposed to continue on to Sydney when it was forced to turn back to Singapore.
There have been no fatal incidents involving A380s since they were unveiled in 2005 and began regular commercial flights two years later.
“This is probably the most serious incident involving the A380 since it began flying in commercial service,” aviation expert Tom Ballantyne, chief correspondent of Orient Aviation magazine, told Reuters. “There have been minor engine incidents before but nothing like this.”
The same model is also flown by Air France, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, but none of those airlines has so far said it will follow Qantas’ action by suspending flights.
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