Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: "QF32" by Capt. Richard de Crespigny

On last Thursday, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released the final report from its investigation into the causes and consequences of the uncontained catastrophic failure of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine that occurred 4 November 2010. The engine in question was at the time occupying the number 2 position on the wing of a Qantas A380 climbing out from Singapore.

The ATSB report is a fascinating engineering document. It covers thoroughly the reasons for the engine's detonation, the nature and extent of the resulting collateral damage, and the very fortunate absence of any significant airframe fire. It does not, however, dwell at any length on the actions and performance of the flight crew during the event and its aftermath. That side of the story is told well by the pilot-in-command, Capt. Richard C. de Crespigny, in his excellent book, QF32. (The title is the Qantas flight number on which the incident occurred.) Capt. de Crespigny provides the reader with both a gripping narrative and a satisfying explication of technical detail. In addition to being a master aviator, the Captain proves to be a gifted explainer.

The author allots roughly the first 40% of the book to telling us about his journey from his youth through his introduction to flying, his training and assignments in the RAAF, his progression through increasingly challenging – and rewarding – flying jobs at Qantas, and (I think, importantly) his founding and nurturing of a successful computer software business. It was a journey that brought him, on that November morning in 2010, to the left seat of an Airbus A380 named Nancy-Bird Walton and to the moment when, four minutes after takeoff and passing through 7,400 feet, he heard a double "Boom!...BOOM!"

Thus began an incredibly intense one hour and 45 minutes of managing a dauntingly complex systems troubleshooting process while nursing a crippled airplane that had sustained an unknown level of damage. If you wanted to specify the perfect aviator to put in charge of these tasks you would design Richard Champion de Crespigny. From the perspective of stick-and-rudder aviating, his experience flying deHavilland Caribou STOL transports and Iroquois helicopters gave him familiarity with taking machines to the edges of their aerodynamic limits. And his intimate knowledge of software design and behavior not only gave him the motivation to understand the Airbus computer protocols at a deep level, but also a well-honed feeling for the ways that software systems respond to degradation and damage.

As fortune would have it there were five pilots on the A380's flight deck that morning – the normal crew of two plus a relief Second Officer, a Check Captain and a Supervising Check Captain. When the Trent 900 'grenaded', taking with it numerous ancillary systems, the resulting flood of messages from the airplane's computers, some logical and some not, kept all hands busy. The author admits to reaching task saturation in the midst of this chaos until (as he puts it), "..I had my epiphany. My mind switched."

"I inverted the logic. I remembered what Gene Kranz, NASA's Flight Director, said during the Apollo 13 mission: 'Hold it! I don't care about what went wrong. I need to know what is still working...' We went back to basics and it became easy..."

From that point, the crew focused on assuring themselves that they had a controllable airplane with minimally functional systems that could safely be landed within the constraints of Singapore's main runway. As they made configuration changes for landing, Capt. de Crespigny disengaged the autopilot and performed 'control checks', a military technique for verifying controllability of an aircraft that has suffered battle-damage. This isn't found in any Airbus manual, but it assured the crew that the airplane would be stable down to the runway.

Runway 20C at Singapore is 4,000 meters long. The author's colleagues on board had calculated that in its damaged condition the A380 would need 3,900 meters to stop if the Pilot Flying executed a perfect touchdown. At the end of a long straight-in approach, Capt. de Crespigny did just that and got the airplane stopped 150 meters short of the runway's end. And that was the end of the beginning.

The big Airbus now sat at the end of the runway, surrounded by emergency equipment. Flammable jet fuel gushed from the perforated left wing. The brakes glowed, nearly white-hot at over 900°C. And the Number 1 engine refused to shut down. The flight was ended, but not the danger.

The decision was taken to not deploy the escape slides for evacuation. The environment outside the aircraft was more hazardous than the inside. So the cabin crew stood by at the armed doors and stairs and ground transport for the passengers were called for. About an hour after touchdown, the first passenger walked down the stairs and to the first bus; the last passenger debarked about an hour later. At last, the tension subsided. It was three hours and 39 minutes since the Number 2 engine had exploded.

In the days and weeks that followed, Capt. de Crespigny and the rest of the flight and cabin crews of QF32 were justly celebrated. Honors and awards were the order of the day. But the author candidly and generously shares his experience with post-crisis psychological reactions to the stressful experience. He sought and received professional help with Post-Crisis Management, and after a couple of months returned to the left-seat on the A380 flight deck.

It's very interesting to compare Richard de Crespigny's experience on QF32 with that of 'Sully' Sullenberger, who famously landed Cactus 1549 in the Hudson River (as described in his book Highest Duty) after losing both engines as a result of bird strikes. To the best of my knowledge, Capt. Sullenberger has never mentioned any post-crisis effects, but his crisis was over within about 15 minutes. Capt. de Crespigny had to operate under extreme stress for over three hours. Soaking in adrenalin for that long has got to have some side-effects.

There are numerous lessons to be taken from the QF32 story. One stands out for me, and it is this: When it all goes pear-shaped, only the attention of highly skilled, highly trained, highly proficient professional aviators stands between the passengers and disaster. Richard de Crespigny and his colleagues proved this. 'Sully' Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles proved this. And sadly, the crew of Air France 447 seem to have proven the converse.

"The Office" of an A380 at FL330 over France on a quiet evening. (Photo courtesy Capt. R. Ch. de Crespigny)

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