ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You may recall the story of the Qantas Airbus A380 last month. It had to make an emergency landing in Singapore right after takeoff when an engine failed. Well, the official Australian report on the incident is now out. And it makes this recording even more remarkable. As you may remember, this was a recording that the BBC obtained. It was made on a passenger's cell phone; a perfectly collected Qantas pilot addressing the passengers.
(Soundbite of recording)
Unidentified Man: I'm sure you're aware we have a technical issue with the number two engine. We have dealt with the situation. The aircraft is secure at this stage. We're going to have to hold for some time whilst we do lighten our load by dropping some fuel and a number of checklists we have to perform. But as you can - I'm sure you are aware, we're not proceeding to Sydney at this stage. We're making a left turn now to track back towards Singapore. And as we progress with this, I will keep you informed. At this stage everything is secure. Aircraft is flying safely and we'll get back to you very shortly with further information. Thank you for your patience.
SIEGEL: Well, that first phrase, we have a technical issue, turns out to cover a multitude of very disturbing signs in the cockpit. Andy Pasztor covers aviation safety for The Wall Street Journal. He's gone over the Australian Transport Safety Bureau's report and joins us now from Los Angeles.
And, Andy, give us some sense of what the Qantas flight crew was confronted with.
Mr. ANDY PASZTOR (Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): In fact, they were confronting a cascade of electrical system failures and computer failures, which put many of their systems basically into a degraded mode or they weren't working at all. These problems range from the problems with brakes and flight control systems to electrical system problems and a fuel leak. And, in fact, the pilot's understatement is really remarkable because they were never trained to deal with these sequence of issues, these number of issues in any kind of a flight.
SIEGEL: Yeah. The report lists these systems warnings on their electronic monitor. And it just wasn't just engine number two out, engines one and four degraded. Two different hydraulic systems had problems, wing slats inoperative. It goes on and on and on.
Mr. PASZTOR: That's correct. And the remarkable thing is that this crew, because of the experience they had and the discipline that they showed, and the training that they had, were able to deal with this in a methodical way. And I think that this incident raises much broader issues, which air safety experts are really focusing on now. And that is the engine failure can be explained by a relatively old-fashioned manufacturing defect. An oil tube wasn't properly machined and it created a leak and there was a fire and a huge disc in the engine ruptured.
But the resulting damage to the plane, first of all, should not have happened according to design standards. And even more importantly, what happens if a less experienced crew over an ocean at night experienced these cascading failures? It's not at all clear that they would've been able to deal with them as well as this crew did.
SIEGEL: And it wasn't just the quality of the crew, it was the quantity of the crew.
Mr. PASZTOR: Very unusual. There were actually five pilots in the cockpit. There were a crew of two and then two other pilots who were basically going through some training procedures on checking pilots who fly this aircraft, and there was a second officer as well.
SIEGEL: One could read the inference from this report, but for several things that just happened to happen, the quality of the crew, the extra pilots, this plane could well have gone down.
Mr. PASZTOR: Well, that's exactly right. And so air safety experts are now looking at what airlines and regulators can do to train other crews who are not this experienced, who may not be in such a lucky situation in terms of good weather and daylight. How to train them to deal with basically computers that go haywire, it's a fundamental issue and that is: Can pilots revert to basic airmanship, rudder and stick skills, if those computers aren't doing what they expect them to do?
SIEGEL: Andy Pasztor, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
Mr. PASZTOR: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Andy Pasztor writes about aviation safety for The Wall Street Journal. He spoke to us from Los Angeles.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.