Monday, July 28, 2008

A brief departure from the political ranting - Qantas Flight QF30

I'm sure most of you are aware of the Qantas flight QF30, from London to Melbourne, which was ultimately diverted to Manila, Philippines after a mysterious blast ripped a two meter wide hole in its hull, shortly after a stop in Hong Kong.

My reason for posting about this is two-fold. First, as I work in the aviation industry, this story is of a greater degree of importance to me than it might be for the average person. Second, it's nice to occasionally have a departure from the gloom and doom political rants I normally post. This is a story with a happy ending.

There were 346 passengers and crew aboard flight QF30. Had the pilot not been as skilled as he was, and had the passengers not remained as calm as they did, this story could have had a far worse ending. As it turns out, thanks to the skill of the pilot and the flight crew, the seemingly doomed flight returned to the ground without any reported injuries.

Reports from the passengers and flight crew mention that the oxygen mask deployment system partially malfunctioned, resulting in several masks not being deployed. Some passengers smacked the oxygen mask compartment above their heads, allowing the masks to drop for them. A home video shot by a passenger aboard the flight shows the minimal commotion raised by the worried passengers.

The pilot's skill saved the lives of 346 people. As soon as he realized something was wrong, he dropped altitude from 24,000 feet to 10,000 feet. That is a basic emergency skill any pilot should have, yet seems to be often forgotten in an emergency. That altitude drop saved the lives of everyone aboard that plane. Without it, the aircraft would have likely experienced an explosive decompression, which could have cost many lives, if not a total loss of life and aircraft.

Upon landing, the passengers applauded the pilot, even though they, for the most part, didn't understand how serious the damage was. Passenger reports state that mild panic, nausea, and other adverse physical states occurred among the passengers after disembarkation, and seeing the extent of the damage.

Further inspection since the event has determined the most likely cause for the blast as an onboard oxygen tank, which apparently ruptured near the top valve and ejected itself through the fuselage. Boeing had previously issued a safety inspection notice for the oxygen tanks on the 747-400 series aircraft (of which flight QF30 was a part), but for a different type of tank, according to the Qantas CEO and supervisory maintenance personnel.

What does this mean for the Boeing 747-400 fleet? Nothing yet. Qantas is inspecting all of its 747-400s to try and ensure against similar problems. Should there be a widespread problem found, it might mean that the entire 747-400 fleet, worldwide, is grounded until inspections and repairs can be made. This includes over 1000 aircraft worldwide. If a common problem is identified, it could mean a fleet grounding on par with the recent grounding of all MD-80 planes (with the MD-80, a wiring harness was the problem - it was susceptible to wear from the landing gear retraction and deployment, possibly resulting in a failure of the rear hydraulics which control the tail rudder and flaps). It could ultimately result in a few canceled flights and airport delays - a small price to pay to save potentially thousands of lives.

Boeing stepped up in this case. Now if only we could say the same about TSA.

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