LONDON – November marks a decade since QF32 successfully landed back at Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) following an uncontained engine failure.
This was the first time an Airbus A380 had problems like this, with this event reflecting on a lot of regulatory changes that had to be made to engines produced by Rolls Royce.
Airways got the opportunity to speak to the First Officer onboard the flight, Matt Hicks, where he discussed it being 10 years since the event happened, what he is doing now as well as COVID-19 and the Airbus A380.
JF: Matt, thanks so much for speaking to Airways. First of all, how did QF32 change your approach to the cockpit environment?
MH: Yeah, well, as far as the cockpit environment goes, I mean, it’s always quite a regimented environment anyway, and especially on Airbus, it’s very procedural the way it works, and is probably the biggest change for me, was just an awareness of what the systems are doing.
Behind the scenes. Airbus is very clever at displaying information to you, that you need to know or thinks you need to know. But quite often, as a pilot, there are things that, you know, you probably should know, that are going on in the background. And it’s, it won’t necessarily display it.
I mean, the classic example, that was when we first got the 380, you could lose a generator, which you call a pretty critical system on one engine generator. And it wouldn’t even display it to you, because you had three others running, but I believe they rectified that in the camp, but you know, it’s things like that.
So just that awareness of what the aircraft is doing. I certainly became quite heightened. Yeah, after, yeah. Yeah, no, I can imagine. And so, obviously, Airbus, in particular, pushed a lot of cockpit automation.
JF: And so my next question with that is, based on your experience onboard, did the cockpit automation actually help? Because there are some pilots who say that it hasn’t really helped on Airbus products.
MH: To be honest, it is a really clever machine. And it’s redundancy systems are second to none, it’s probably got the most, you know, redundant systems of any aircraft that’s ever been built.
And part of the reason that we were successful on the fourth of November 2010, is because the plane was so resilient.
And the automation behind it sure, we had some pretty confusing bits and things that were sort of quite well documented. And that’s probably the limitation of the system, the aircraft can only tell you what it knows.
So that’s why there’s this continual push for pilot training. And, you know, I think it’s more a training thing than a systems thing.
And it’s just the constant vigilance, they need to make sure that the crews that are flying those aircraft, don’t get swamped by the automation.
So it’s the basis of flying any plane, you know, maybe just because it’s spitting out a lot of information that you might not necessarily be right. It is an issue, like on the MAX, which has had its issues with automation, and AI, but I think that’s the future of aviation that there’s a lot of automation, and it doesn’t make the job easier but just makes it different.
JF: I can imagine that you’ve been asked this question quite a lot. But for our new readers, in particular, who may not know about the flights, and obviously, one thing that was very well documented in the investigation was the number of checklists that you have to go through. And so, you know, kind of take us back to that moment, how did it feel going through that sort of plethora of checklists? And, you know, what, did you feel in your mind that it was manageable? Or was that the case of you have no choice but to do it?
MH: Ah, I think we had around 54 separate ECAM procedures that it wanted us to do. We had about 100 system failures that were all combined together to generate those problems for us.
But yeah, to look at it is quite overwhelming. And my initial feeling was of sinking despair when they started scrolling up the list.
That’s, I think that’s, you know, what they call startle effect, I tried to look back at that over the years and, and when you get something like that, and, and initially, the messages you’re seeing are quite serious to the point that you get that sort of startle effect, and then that’s how your training and experience kicks in to say, well, actually, I know how to deal with this stuff.
I’ve just got to be logical in my application.
It often says that the checklist can’t cater for every conceivable, you know, permutation of failures. So in our case, yeah, we knew there were things that we had the question, and when you just don’t blindly follow them.
And that’s probably the tiring part of the whole process is because you’re thinking at such a high level for such a long period of time. For us, I think it was before we really had the thing in a stable state where we were comfortable with what was going on it was well, 38 minutes.
And just continually working together to troubleshoot erroneous, real, I don’t know, checklist problems. It was quite, you know, yeah, it was quite stressful.
JF: It has been a decade since the flight. Is it a little crazy that 10 years have gone by? And if so, how, and where do you think the industry has progressed further, in those 10 years?
MH: Ah, yeah, it certainly does. As I said, it feels like a lifetime ago. But and, you know, I’ve been flying the 737 now for almost seven years, you know, it’s, and I still say positive climb every now and then, you know, just throw the pilots off-guard and to confuse those haha, but it does seem like a while ago, but it, it’s certainly, I think, like every incident or accident in aviation, because it’s such a young industry, is there’s a learning out of everything.
And even if you take it right back to the base level of the failure, which was a stubbed pipe, basically, due to a quality assurance oversight at Rolls Royce, I mean, they change their processes based on those findings.
So everything that happens in aviation, there’s a learning and normally, it just doesn’t get repeated, and we move on and something else happens and the industry gets safer and safer.
So it’s, it’s an industry that has a really good safety culture, all around the world that you know, there aren’t people out there just flaunting safety. So it means that you know, it just gets safer and safer and safer.
JF: So obviously, during a time of, you know, during a time after the incident, and how did you feel during the sort of extra regulatory scrutiny that took place following the incident where, you know, and I don’t really want to compare it to Sully, but it does, you know, it’s the first thing that comes into my mind, was that any sort of scrutiny by the authorities, based on your ability as a pilot, or was it predominantly just a look at it being a technical failure?
MH: I certainly don’t want to compare it to Sully either. It’s a world of difference. It’s an engine failure with system damage. So basically, the authorities are a professional organization, and the investigators we spoke to, were fantastic.
Always professional, they’re really interested in talking to us about our experiences, if things that we told them didn’t match up with the information they had, they said, yep, okay, no worries, we’ll dig deeper and look in.
And in a lot of cases, they found secondary or tertiary source sources of that information to validate what we were saying.
There was a power disruption to the FDR so that, of course, the loss of some data, flight data recorder information, and they had to rebuild that and it’s really impressive what they did.
They, on our advice, went hunting and they wrote a software program to take basically a, like a drive image from a display. And that’s how I found it. It was really clever.
JF: And so moving on to the aircraft itself. So what are your thoughts on the A380 just as a general you know, sort of view what kind of aircraft is it like to fly?
MH: So obviously, it’s not your conventional Boeing 737-800 or Airbus A320 as it is something completely different. I miss it greatly as a machine as it’s just a fantastic aircraft. From a pilot’s point of view, it’s just amazing, it’s the first time I flew it I just felt it flew better than the A330.
It was so cool. The systems in it were just incredible. I mean the FCOM has 12,500 pages if you want to get into it. It’s a super complex machine, and I’m a nerd, and I like complex machines. So I love that.
And I’d love to fly it again one day and you know, hopefully, we do see it fly again.
JF: So what With that in mind, obviously, airlines around the world have been, you know, withdrawing the aircraft a lot sooner than what people would expect, obviously, due to the pandemic. And do you think the aircraft could have had more years in it had the pandemic not turned up?
MH: Yeah, I think obviously, if there was no pandemic, it’d still be flying right now. I think it will come back. I saw Emirates is, you know, taking another couple of aircraft deliveries.
And when we fully intend to fly out if the market conditions come back, and there’s the capacity required, well, it’ll come out. That’s why they’re sitting in the desert being maintained, you know, that we’re not throwing away just yet, of course.
I mean, they’ve written them down. So that makes them more cost effective to use in the future. And a lot of my friends still fly other things. So you know, they’re all waiting for to come back.
JF: So obviously, with the hundredth anniversary of Qantas, as an airline, how do you feel, you know, about the airline reaching that sort of historic milestone for the industry, considering the industry is only 117 years old?
Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, the whole company is excited about the hundredth anniversary. And I mean, you know, it’s not quite the year we were we’re hoping for, but we’re conserving our money for other things like flying airplanes, but it’s still exciting to be here. And I thought the other day, I’ve just ticked over 25 years in Qantas.
So I’ve been here for a quarter of its history. And that in itself, that’s crazy. And I was looking at some old photos. And I could remember, when I first started at Qantas, I can remember the old jumbo, but I remember the blue and the red one. It was a blue classic jumbo.
I remember flying that. And yeah, I just don’t feel old about it, to be honest. But anyway.
JF: Well, congratulations on your quarter-century. That is quite a feat. So I think my what my proper final question would be, obviously, and obviously, Alan Joyce, as you know, spoke out today about the vaccination policy and requiring passengers to be vaccinated before they fly. Do you think that Qantas is going to be the first of many airlines to implement this policy? Or do you think the industry will try its hardest to not use that policy?
MH: I don’t know. I couldn’t really speak to what other countries do but you know, as a traveler, I reckon that’s a great idea. And if it gets us back, flying internationally, well, fantastic. I mean, the industry is going to have to adapt as a whole and it will be a pretty dynamic industry.
JF: Matt, thanks again for speaking to us.
It was an absolute pleasure to interview Mr. Hicks, as it has been something I wanted to do for quite a while. Hicks’ comments on QF32 resonate what it means to be resilient as a pilot, and when the going gets tough, it isn’t all over yet.
Hicks’ views on the Airbus A380 do resonate some positivity about the aircraft coming back into service, even if it is the case that they are no longer produced by the aerospace giant anymore.
But, Matt is definitely correct about aviation safety, over 10 years on, it is becoming a far safer mode of travelling, and that is something that as he nails on the head, is down to continued development of safety.
Featured Image: QF32 seen on the ground at SIN over a decade ago. Photo Credit: EPA/AAP
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