A day after a massive engine failure on the world’s largest jetliner, manufacturer Rolls-Royce watched a billion dollars vanish from its market value, while another of its engines on a different plane caught fire in flight.
The Australian airline Qantas blamed the British aerospace company for the violent mid-flight disintegration on Thursday of an engine on the Airbus A380. Another Qantas plane equipped with Rolls-Royce engines suffered an engine problem shortly after takeoff late Friday, producing a loud bang and shooting fire before it turned back to Singapore.
Modern passenger jets are designed to fly after one or more engine failures, and both Qantas planes landed safely.
On Thursday, one of the A380’s four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines failed minutes into a flight to Sydney, shedding pieces of metal over Indonesia before it returned to make a safe emergency landing in Singapore.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said the problem was “most likely a material failure or some type of design issue” and not related to maintenance.
Rolls-Royce Group PLC, a London-based aerospace, power systems and defense company separate from the car manufacturer, made no public comment. Its stock price took a beating for the second day, ending more than 5 percent lower.
Experts said an engine flaw could be responsible, with one pointing to a shattered piece of turbine as the possible failure point.
Qantas has six of the double-decker Airbus A380s, the world’s largest airliner.
It is as tall as a seven-story building and capable of carrying 853 passengers, although most airlines use it for about 500.
Twenty planes operated by Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines use the Trent 900 — a new, immensely powerful and highly complex piece of equipment as tall as a single-story house.
The engine on the Qantas Airbus suffered what aviation experts call an uncontained engine failure, in which high-energy debris from the rotating parts break through the engine casing. Some of the pieces sliced into the plane’s wing.
Such accidents, rare these days due to improvements in design and metallurgy, usually are caused by engines sucking in objects like runway debris or a bird, or maintenance crews failing to replace parts that wear out.
“The possible danger of an uncontained failure is shrapnel from the turbines or compressors exiting the engine case and puncturing portions of the wing and fuselage,” said Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot and aviation author. “A worse-case scenario could have pieces of hot metal going into the fuel tanks or into the cabin, causing a leak or fire or cabin depressurization.”
Late Friday, a Sydney-bound Qantas Boeing 747-400 fitted with four Rolls-Royce RB211-524G-T engines landed safely in Singapore after an engine caught fire minutes after taking off, the airline said.
“There was a loud bang and a jet of fire from the back of the engine,” passenger Andrew Jenkins, a 43-year-old Australian banker, told The Associated Press.
William Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation based in Alexandria, Virginia, said the latest incident was very different from Thursday’s engine disintegration, the most serious midair incident involving the A380 since it debuted in 2007.
The 747-400 is a much older plane with an entirely different engine even though both are made by Rolls Royce, Voss said. The second engine failure was much more routine, while the uncontained engine failure on the A380 was “more exceptional,” Voss said.
“The engines that are on the A380 are new engines, and because they are new … we are obviously very cautious about the operation of that aircraft,” Qantas’ Joyce told reporters Saturday.
Qantas’ 747 fleet will not be grounded because of Friday’s incident, he said. Qantas’ six A380s won’t fly until full safety checks are completed over the next few days, he added.
Voss said it appeared credible that a design or construction flaw was the cause of the A380 engine failure.
He said if the problem was shared by all Trent 900 engines, it is likely to be caught in inspections carried out by Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines after Thursday’s accident.
All of the airlines temporarily grounded their A380s, but Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines resumed flying them Friday after they passed safety inspections.
Airbus said it had asked all airlines operating the A380 planes with Rolls-Royce engines to carry out inspections “to ensure continuous safe operations of the fleet.” Airbus has delivered a total of 37 of the A380s, but the 17 operated by Emirates and Air France use engines from a different manufacturer.
The European Aviation Safety Agency has issued orders twice this year advising airlines about extra inspections or repairs needed to deal with potential problems with the Trent 900.
Joyce said such directives are commonplace — an airline could receive 100 per year across a range of planes — and that Qantas was in full compliance.
One August order indicated that routine wear could cause the turbine discs — rings the turbine blades are attached to — to come into contact with stationary parts of the engine, resulting in an in-flight shutdown, or even an oil fire.
But EASA spokesman Jeremie Teahan said the agency did not believe that problem could lead to a breakup of the type that occurred Thursday.
Nevertheless, a news photo of the stricken A380 showing a turbine disc broken nearly in half, its blades missing, indicates that a turbine disc may have failed, said John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and an expert on aircraft maintenance.
The location of the break appears to indicate that it was the disc that failed, Goglia said. The photo didn’t show any signs of discoloration on the disc that would indicate overheating.
There are several reasons why a disc might fail, but they usually involve the metal used to make the disc or the manufacturing method, Goglia said. He cautioned that he was looking at one photo, which was not enough information to make a definitive judgment.
Another Rolls Royce engine, the Trent 1000, also experienced an uncontained engine failure during testing in August for use on Boeing’s 787 “Dreamliner.” Boeing temporarily stopped shipments of the engines from Rolls-Royce, but the shipments have resumed, Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said in an e-mail.
Proulx declined to elaborate on the circumstances of the engine failure, referring questions to Rolls-Royce.
However, he said that based on recent findings during engine testing at a Rolls-Royce facility in Derby, England, a series of hardware and software improvements to the Trent 1000 are being incorporated before the first 787 delivery.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is leading an investigation into Thursday’s incident with help from Qantas, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and aviation authorities in several countries.
With its image of safety battered by recent events, Qantas got a high-profile endorsement Saturday from Hollywood actor John Travolta — a qualified pilot who owns a former Qantas passenger jet and works for the airline as an international ambassador.
“The Qantas brand around the world is very strong,” Travolta told reporters, standing in front of one of the airline’s grounded A380s shortly after landing in Sydney to take part in Qantas’ 90th anniversary celebrations.
He did not comment directly on the recent engine failures, but said he had “respect for Qantas’ ability to do it right, and to do it with integrity and pride and honor.”