A lifetime of learning contained in a story about Capt. Richard de Crespigny and his Qantas Airways crew.
When I began narrating audiobooks several years ago, I naturally found myself committing a good deal of my time to aviation subjects. I’ve produced a number of aviation titles into audio, from aviation-themed novels on through various technical and how-to books.
When I finally wrap up one of these aviation books, I invariably find myself walking out of the audio booth with more knowledge about that particular aeronautical subject than when I walked in.
My most recent example of “in-the-booth training” came courtesy of part three of airline captain Eric Auxier’s series, “There I Wuz.” Auxier provided me with an up-close and personal interview with a very renowned airline pilot: Capt. Richard de Crespigny.
What this man has to say about how to handle a really big problem in a really big airplane is packed full of good information for anyone who finds themselves behind the controls of any size airplane that has developed difficulties.
First, let’s meet Capt. de Crespigny. He flies the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, for Qantas Airways. On Nov. 4, 2010, on Flight QF32 from Singapore to Sydney, he and his crew suffered what is called a “black swan event”—an event so rare as to be statistically unpredictable, that comes with major consequences.
Capt. de Crespigny’s black swan came from a massive engine failure; at least, that was the beginning of the dilemma. To quote the captain: “We were flying from Singapore to Sydney, and seven minutes after takeoff, engine number two (the A380 is the world’s largest passenger airliner, it has two decks and four massive engines) exploded.
“It was the turbine disk itself that exploded. It broke off in three pieces. Two pieces missed the airplane, but one piece hit the airplane with shrapnel, a bit like a cluster bomb or a grenade going off at each of those spots. Some 500 impacts on the airplane and on the fuselage were later detected.
“It also created major holes in the aircraft, and it cut over 650 wires and damaged 21 out of 22 systems—only the crew oxygen system was unaffected, and that was something we didn’t need at our low altitude.”
Okay, so your big jet has lost one-quarter of its engine power and suffered some other difficulties, you say? But, surely, that can’t be as bad as having to feather one of the engines on a light twin, right?
Wrong. Here’s why, from the captain’s story: “The failure of the engine was not the critical problem. The problem was the loss of the systems, so we had to assess what we had left of the computerized aircraft and find the best way on how to get it down on the ground.
“It was a very difficult time in terms of decision-making, and the process took us two more hours in the air, and later, on the ground, there was another two hours of decision-making to really guarantee the safety of the passengers. Ultimately, we got the passengers off, they all got home, and there were absolutely no injuries for our black swan event.
“There are a lot of lessons that came out of all the things that we did, which is really an amalgamation of all the skills learned through osmosis in a flying career. I’ve been flying for almost 40 years now, so you learn things during that career and all the decisions you make are a culmination of the knowledge that you assemble, the experience and training you bring to the event, and the teamwork.
“Speaking of teamwork, there were five pilots in the cockpit that day, so we had the culmination of over 150 years of piloting experience. But we all had to put our heads together to get that airliner down on the ground safely.”
As I narrated this tale, here are some of the highlights that came out of this black swan event that every pilot needs to appreciate, understand, and put into their own bag of tricks.
1) This enormously automated aircraft was continuing to function just as it was designed, and the highly automated cockpit screens were producing exactly the proper checklists, procedures and parameters that the onboard sensors told it to. But this data was in many instances wrong, because too many wires and sensors were cut and shorted out for the brains of this Airbus to know what the true situation was.
Had the crew simply followed the checklists and proposed parameters, they would have undoubtedly crashed. The pilot’s lesson here is to always make sure that what you’re about to do makes good sense and “feels right” for your situation!
2) When you don’t have to rush, don’t rush. And fly the airplane, first and foremost. Once their A380 was stable and it was determined that there was no immediate rush to get on the ground (that is, there was no onboard fire, nor any progressive structural failure), the crew took their time to thoroughly understand and evaluate their situation.
Faced with so many points of failure and so much erroneous data from the automated systems and checklists, they decided to do what the Apollo 13 crew elected to do during their enormous off-the-charts emergency: stop looking at what had failed and, instead, begin evaluating and cataloging what systems still worked.
By shifting their mental thinking, this crew turned a complex A380, with four million parts and with 1,225 checklists and 250,000 sensors into something far more basic and easy to deal with: they turned it into hardly more than a Piper on steroids, and at that point their decisions became simpler.
3) Always be ready for some—or even ALL—of your “magic” to fail. As airplanes large and small become increasingly automated, pilots have an increasing obligation to really understand the basic nature of what they’re operating and what they would do when those electrons suddenly evaporate into the ether.
As Capt. de Crespigny explained, “We’re dealing now with highly computerized systems, and if you don’t make an effort to get to understand the core of these systems, then you might become a victim or you might think the airplane is flying you.
“So, if you want to go to a high-tech aircraft that is run by computers, there is a responsibility to understand the underlying systems if you want to use them. Because when those systems fail—and they do fail—it’s up to the pilot now to recover an aircraft that is very complex and much more sophisticated.”
This is as true in a Piper as it is in the A380. The bigger airplane might have grander and fancier automation and other “onboard magic,” but to the extent that the pilot is addicted to and totally dependent on that automation/magic, is the extent that the pilot has become just another passenger. In a nutshell: use it, but know how to lose it!
4) Some final sage advice from Capt. de Crespigny: “Aviation regulations are written in blood. They protect us from incidents that have taken thousands of lives of our predecessors. But that is not enough.
“Professional pilots need to commit to a lifetime of learning. Even with thousands of hours logged in numerous aircraft types, we learn something new every time we fly. Politics change. Economics, technology and companies change. Pilot roles don’t. We are the last line of defense.
“The best lessons happen unexpectedly. We never know when we will next be challenged and when some tidbit of information, however small, is going to become useful to resolve an emergency or abnormal situation.
“So we read books, study manuals, “armchair” fly and do deliberate hard practice in simulators. We study human factors and involve ourselves in safety management systems. With years of study and practice, we hope we are prepared to expect the unexpected.
“Failure is not an option. The price for failure in aviation is high. We strive to improve and learn from our own mistakes and the stories of those who flew before us. Every story contains pearls of wisdom and experience. Sometimes pilots’ errors are tragic. Other times we escape with only our egos damaged. The best pilots know a tarnished ego is the cheapest price to pay on the path to resilience.”
A special thanks to Capt. Richard de Crespigny and Capt. Eric Auxier for sharing piloting stories that can help us become better at the tasks at hand.
For the complete story of this noteworthy Qantas flight, see Richard de Crespigny’s book “QF32,” and any of Capt. Eric Auxier’s aviation books. The titles are available in hard copy at Amazon.com (and, of course, in audiobook versions).
Editor at large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to .