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Airlines forewarned of Rolls-Royce engine issue

Rolls-Royce was warned months ago about the safety of the engine model powering a Qantas aircraft forced to make an emergency landing yesterday.

The airline’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, said this morning that a ‘design issue’ may have caused the engine failure on the Airbus A380 aircraft forced to return to Singapore shortly after take-off.

This followed the emergence of warnings made in August by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) of ‘wear, beyond Engine Manual limits’ and conditions that ‘present a potential unsafe condition to the aeroplane’ in relation to the Trent 900 engine.

In an airworthiness directive, EASA said wear was found on the splines of the intermediate pressure (IP) turbine that required inspection. Rearward movement of the turbine ‘would enable contact with static turbine components and would result in loss of engine performance with potential for in-flight shut down, oil migration and oil fire’, it said.

Joyce said the problem with the Qantas aircraft was an engine issue and not related to the airworthiness of the plane. ‘We believe this is probably most likely a material failure or some sort of design issue,’ he told reporters in Sydney.

Rolls-Royce issued a statement yesterday saying the process of precautionary engine checks was underway. A spokesperson told The Engineer it was important to note that the investigation was still at an early stage.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing one of the plane’s engines explode before the plane carrying 440 passengers and 26 crew returned to Singapore. The aircraft landed safely and, according to Qantas, there were no injuries to any passengers or crew.

Airbus said in a statement that it had asked all A380 operators with Rolls-Royce engines to inspect the planes. Qantas has grounded its fleet of A380s but Singapore Airlines has resumed flights after delays yesterday.

Commentators have suggested multiple explanations for the engine failure, emphasising that a full investigation would be needed for a concrete verdict.

Dr Ranjan Vepa, lecturer in avionics at Queen Mary, University of London, said: ‘The uncontained engine failure could also have been caused by a combination of circumstances that could have triggered a sequence of enabling events leading to the uncontained engine failure almost immediately after take-off.

‘This naturally tends to make one suspect that the engine was probably hit by something that caused the engine inlet to be blocked, which in turn could have triggered a sequence of events leading to the turbine trying to operate faster or even a “fire” within the combustion chamber.’

John Turton of the Institution of Engineering and Technology Aerospace Network, said: ‘From the initial reports it appears that this incident was caused by some kind of uncontained failure in the hot end of the engine.

‘The underside cowling parts that were blown off are around the turbine area and there has been one piece of video looking out from the cabin that shows a radial puncture through the upper surface of the wing, apparently adjacent to the turbine section.

‘This would indicate that there was considerable force involved in ejecting material from the engine in this location.’

Readers' comments (24)

  • What about the 2 recent Qantas B747 incidents? On Sept 1, 2010, a Qantas B747 leaving San Francisco was forced to turn around after an engine explosion. It was a Roll Royce RB-211 engine. On November 5, 2010 a Qantas B747 was forced to return due to engine failure, one day after the A380 incident involving the Rolls Royce Trent 900.

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  • Early days. Stop jumping to conclusions until the facts are known. Rolls-Royce bashing is not particularly clever, nor is being an 'armchair engineer'!

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  • Well said Lizzie T! You should have added Airbus bashing to that as well.

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  • The aspect that concerns me the most has only been touched on in this article and not mentioned at all (as far as I know) in the general media. The most worrying problem that I can see isn't so much that there was a failure but that it was uncontained. I don't know enough about engine design to know if there is "armouring" in critical areas only, but if not then imagine the consequences of a turbine blade coming out the side of the engine and through the fuselage.

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  • Since all the incidents Anonymous listed come from one airline, but feature different plane manufacturers, maybe that is more significant than the actual engine manufacturer? Until more is known, this incident could just as well be servicing related, foreign body related or design related. Let's await the investigation result.

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  • I have to agree with the 'Rolls Royce bashing not particularly clever'.

    I was an engineer who went out with the Deepwater Horizon incident and we have seen enough blamestorming to last a lifetime.

    Lets wait until the facts are available.

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  • I expect that the potential speed of parts expelled from a jet engine during a catastophic failure would be so considerable that any "armouring" would have to be exceedingly robust and therefore impractically heavy.
    Anyway, as yet the cause is unknown, so I dont see the need for extra engine shields...
    Just a thought, your car engine has much, much greater chance of failure which could send high speed parts towards the passenger compartment, but there is no special shielding there is a risk.

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  • I subscribe to the view that one should buy one's next bridge from the man whose last bridge fell down. There is no doubt that the finest minds at Rolls-Royce will be on the case so why The Engineer sought an opinion from an avionics' lecturer is a mystery. Let's learn, not guess.

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  • Far more incidents occur on aircraft than most people are aware off. As a frequent flyer for over 30 years I have personnaly experienced engine failure, flame outs and even landing with a slight lack of undercarriage. These all went unreported in the press. Things like this happen everyday it's nothing new. The fact that this particular engine failure was not contained is a cause for concern but lets not leap on the band wagon and start slagging of another British company. BP was bad enough surely! If there is a problem at RR then people far more intelligent than me will find a solution. Leave them to it.

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  • The reports of oil leaks suggests that some part may not have been receiving the correct lubricant and failed. The correction of that would hopefully see the end of the problem-no big deal.
    There was a time when the CF6 engine, not made by RR used to have a tendancy to shed turbines blades when operating in the lean burn mode. Does anybody know if the Trent runs lean burn?

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