Published in August 2015 issue

His name is Captain Richard De Crespigny. He flies one of the world’s largest airliners, the Airbus A380, for Qantas Airlines. And in November 2010, on Flight QF32 from Singapore to Sydney, he and his crew suffered what is called a “black swan event.”

By Eric Auxier

On November 4, 2010, Qantas flight qf32 had just left Singapore to complete its long flight from London to Sydney, when the Number Two engine exploded, sending shrapnel through the wings, severing cables and wires, causing major damage to all but one system, and rupturing fuel tanks. It was a black swan event, a set of circumstances so rare as to be unpredictable. And it was extremely dangerous.

For two grueling hours, Captain Richard de Crespigny and his gallant crew fought to restore control and safely land the crippled, massively overweight plane. Even after a dramatic landing back in Singapore—with a mere 100 meters of runway left—Captain de Crespigny and his crew wrestled with the plane for two more exhausting hours, when the Number One engine refused to shut down.

In Part I of our three-part series (Airways, July 2015) we learned what the early phases of that emergency were like for the Captain and his crew.

This month, Captain de Crespigny explains to interviewer Eric Auxier how the Australian culture played a big role during his black swan incident, and how his crew managed the difficult situation with 440 nervous passengers as the hot and heavy A380 was being prepared for an emergency landing.

The best-selling author of the award-winning book “QF32,” is now a worldwide sought-after speaker. His exclusive three-part interview with Airways continues. This is the second part of his story.

Airways: Often, both national and corporate cultures influence flight crews during crises, for better or worse. How do you think your cultural environment contributed to the successful outcome of Flight QF32?

De Crespigny: I think that the Australian culture contributes greatly to the piloting community. Australians are descended from convicts that were dispatched from Britain.

So there is a bit of convict blood in most Australians. We have a bit of a rascally attitude, and we have a healthy disrespect for authority just by itself. To be respected, you have to be respectable. And leaders need to build respect to be respected. So, Australians will always challenge authority, and have that great rascal attitude. And what that means is that Australians are happy to say “Stop.”

There is a great story of an Australian pilot, a First Officer, who went to work with an airline in Asia. The Captain, who was European, wanted to take his Boeing out on the runway and take off. The First Officer said,

“No, we don’t have the performance, we’re taking off towards mountains.” To which the Captain said, “Well, we’re doing it anyway.” It was an autocratic decision.

So the airplane lined up, the Captain set the power, but the aircraft didn’t move; the First Officer had his foot firmly on the brakes. The Captain said, “Take your foot off the brakes,” to which the First Officer replied, “Change the runway.” And the Captain did.

So, at certain times, pilots need to know when they’re going to say “Stop.” It’s a gut feeling. You have to be prepared to say “Stop.” And Australians will gladly do so.

So, if I’m not confident in my role as a Captain in my airline, I’ll be told very quickly, and it’s right that this is so. No one has the right to be an autocratic leader in a high-tech environment where lives are at risk. Be it a surgery room, for example, or in an aircraft cockpit. So, that’s the national culture.

The personal culture is that airline pilots, if they have learned the way the industry would like them to learn, understand CRM. In some airlines, they think that CRM means Captain Resource Management. What some of these airlines still don’t get is that CRM is Crew Resource Management, and that’s a skill anyone in the world can learn.

The lessons of QF32 apply to anyone who is working in a high-risk environment that needs leadership and teamwork to survive. Actually, anyone who works in a place where failure is not an option.

You can work in an environment of true CRM, but, often, the Captain might have knowledge that the other crew does not. It might be a time-critical situation, and he doesn’t have time to tell the other pilots what he’s planning to do. And if he doesn’t have the time, then he just has to go ahead and do it. So, CRM is great if there is time. But, sometimes, there isn’t, so the captain has to do what he is paid for, which is to be responsible for the lives of the passengers. If he has to operate in isolation from the rest of his crew because they don’t understand, then he just has to do it.

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In your book, you mention CSM (Cabin Service Manager) Klaus Michael Von Reth. You credit him with doing a phenomenal job leading the cabin crew and dealing with the passengers. Can you elaborate on that?

The industry perhaps takes cabin crews for granted. They do a great job. As I wrote in the book, Michael Von Reth was probably more qualified to be in the cabin than I was to be the Captain of the aircraft.

The SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) didn’t cover what Michael did that day. This wasn’t a standard procedure anyway; we were in a black swan event. So, we really didn’t have too many procedures to work with. But Michael created procedures on the fly, he was doing things that were natural to him because of his experience and background—he’d been a member of the European Space Agency— and it all came together.

Michael led an excellent crew, and the crew kept the passengers calm, and the passengers all actually became part of the team as a consequence. Michael mustered 440 passengers into a team that actually helped us on that day. And that’s part of the reason why there were no injuries. So, Michael Von Reth really deserves the highest credit for what he did on that aircraft, though he really hasn’t been acknowledged. So when I do my talks around the world, I try to make sure that everyone appreciates just how important he was in his position, and what a fantastic job he did.


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You talked about a Control Check, and it was somewhat unprecedented at the time you did it. And now you say it’s even written in the Airbus procedures itself.

You do control checks when you’re unsure of the aerodynamic capability of the aircraft. In the 1990s, there was an El Al flight, a ‘Jumbo’ (Boeing 747), that had two engines break off from the wing. It was flying happily until it made its approach, when it rolled over and crashed into an apartment building in Amsterdam.

And there are other cases in which aircraft crashed when they reconfigured and slowed on their approaches. So, we’ve learned from all these experiences. It’s also second nature to any military pilot that, if you’re hit by ground fire, or if you’ve had an air collision when you’re flying in formation, you would check the aircraft aerodynamically before you come in to land.

So, control checks are second nature to any military pilot. Again, we had lost 65% of our roll control, and we had three fuel imbalances that were out of limits, and were getting worse with time. With all the other failures that we had, this certainly threw up question marks as to whether we would be able to control the aircraft when we’d come in to land. So, we had to do a control check.

We did five control checks when we slowed, lowered the flaps, lowered the landing gear, and reconfigured. And, every time we rolled to the right—and this is in my book—the aircraft started to shake. I think that was because there was massive damage to the left wing.

Aerodynamically, if you have damage to the left wing, corrections must be manually put in for the right wing. So, if the aircraft is to fly straight, the damage is doubled. We had a lot of aerodynamic damage, and we had flight control damage, and the aircraft didn’t really like turning to the right at all.

So, at 4,000 feet, the approach altitude, we did a dress rehearsal for the landing. If the aircraft had departed, you would have known that your last selection had been unwise, and that you should bring it back, lift the flaps up perhaps and increase the speed.

If you want to fly your approach to a full certification standard, you increase the speed by 1.23 times the speed at which you lose it. We didn’t have the capability to do that. If we’d sped up by three knots, we would’ve run off the runway. My point is that, if you understand how aircraft are certified and the margin specifications, then performing a control check becomes a whole lot easier.

There is a lot more about control checks than is presented in the manuals. You also have to check whether the flight controls are saturated. The Boeing 787 has an EICAS checklist, which tells you whether the flight controls are saturated, which means they can’t move any more. In a fly-by-wire, you can have the control yoke centralized and all the flight controls fully deflected.

So, we were getting into a deeper aspect of a flight control check. We had the flight control display up, we did our control checks, and the flight controls were approaching saturation. So we knew exactly what active flight controls we had in surplus. It wasn’t that much.

And obviously you were between a rock and a hard place in the landing itself, not only with the critical speed, but also determining which configuration would work best for you.

The flaps weren’t damaged at all. So, we landed at Flaps Three (third setting). That’s what the system came up with, I’m presuming to give us “go-around” (aborting landing, climbing out and circling around for another try) capability. But, if we’d gone around with full thrust on all remaining engines, we would have cooked the engines that had no protection, so we really couldn’t do that.

That’s why we used Flaps Three. But we had no leading edge slats, a little “aileron droop” to give you a lift function, and lost some of the wing’s boundary layer (smooth air flow) because of all the damage to the leading edge of the wing. We had a hole in the wing that air was venting through. Also, when the ailerons don’t droop, you lose lift. But our ailerons weren’t even faring level with the wing. The ailerons were sticking up full-scale deflection, 18 degrees up (losing lift and causing massive drag.)

In QF32, the book, the data shows the loss of lift on the wings, and, on those sections in which the ailerons were floating, the lift was reduced to half.

So, there were lots of reasons we’d lost lift, and these causes were not being taken into account by the landing program, and weren’t even being taken into account of by the flight instruments, so the Vls (lowest selectable airspeed) display was wrong for our aircraft, which was why we were getting speed and stall warnings on the approach. So, we had incorrect flight instrumentation, we had incorrect computer calculations.

But it was the dress rehearsal; it was the control checks that proved our aircraft safe. So, when we made our approach and we got the speed and stall warnings, we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic, we continued our landing.

That resilience to continue in the face of warnings is similar to what Neil Armstrong showed when he landed on the moon.