By Andy Pasztor
U.S. air-safety regulators have issued an emergency order requiring airlines to inspect engines on roughly 120 Airbus A380 superjumbo jets world-wide, prompted by an engine that violently broke apart during an Air France flight at the end of September.
The safety directive issued Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration covers all engines manufactured for Airbus SE A380s by a joint venture comprising General Electric Co. and United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney unit. The partnership supplies engines for roughly 60 percent of the global A380 fleet, with Emirates Airline operating the majority of the affected four-engine, double-decker aircraft.
The move by the FAA, which certified the engine as did European regulators 10 years ago, requires inspections to start as quickly as two weeks, depending on the number of trips they have flown. The directive follows a nonbinding service bulletin issued by the engine alliance.
On September 30, one engine of an Air France A380 cruising at 37,000 feet over Greenland suffered a major failure with parts flying off and damaging nearby structures. The plane landed safely and nobody was injured, but the circumstances prompted an intense international probe. Pictures showed the guts of the engine exposed, with large sections in front missing.
It is highly unusual for an engine to suffer such a serious malfunction as breaking apart in flight. Portions of the cowling, or inlet portion, and nearby rotating sections separated from the rest of the engine so violently that the sequence of events was akin to an explosion. According to the FAA, the fan hub on a "relatively high cycle" engine suddenly failed, a problem that can damage the engine and part of the plane.
Some large fragments were found on the ground in Greenland, while others were retrieved on the runway after the plane, carrying more than 520 people on a flight to Los Angeles from Paris, made an emergency landing at Goose Bay, Canada.
Portions of the pylon attaching the engine to the right wing also were damaged. The pilots declared a "Mayday" and fire crews checked for leaks as soon as the jet pulled off the runway.
French investigators have been announcing the status of the probe, which includes Airbus officials and engine experts as well as U.S. and Canadian government investigators. The damaged engine is slated to be shipped to General Electric's overhaul facilities in Wales for detailed analysis.
But in the interim, the FAA wants operators to inspect front fan hubs -- disks that hold rotating blades -- for possible defects or damage. The manufacturer said the checks take roughly two hours and can be done without removing engines from aircraft.
Responding to questions for the alliance, a General Electric spokesman said in an email that the inspections are precautionary and "a root cause has not been established." The rest of the GP7200 engine fleet "powers the A380 around the clock," according to the statement, and "we aren't aware of any issues" that would threaten flight safety.
As part of its inspection mandate, the FAA said it was taking interim action and "may consider additional rule-making" if warranted.
The same family of engines experienced an unrelated safety problem five years ago, prompting a previous FAA airworthiness directive.
In November 2012, an Emirates A380 departing Sydney had an engine shut down on its own at about 9,000 feet. The plane returned to the airport without any passengers injured. But a subsequent investigation by Australian authorities revealed that unexpectedly high temperatures stemming from a poorly designed nozzle resulted in significant internal damage.
Two years earlier, the engine manufacturer had issued a service bulletin calling for a replacement of the suspect parts with new, more durable components. Following the incident, the FAA issued a mandatory directive requiring inspections and removal of damaged parts.
Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]