U.S. authorities ordered inspections of some engines powering Airbus SE’s A380 superjumbo jet after one of the turbines blew apart last month during an Air France flight.
The Federal Aviation Administration determined there was an “unsafe condition” that “is likely to exist or develop in other products of the same type design,” according to the directive posted on its website. The action comes after the engine’s manufacturer, a joint venture of General Electric Co. and Pratt & Whitney, issued a service bulletin Thursday describing how to perform the visual inspections.
The directive is a first step and additional actions may be required after an investigation determines the cause of the engine failure, the FAA said. The authority routinely issues multiple legally binding orders for repairs on airliners each workday, but emergency directives such as the one on the A380 engines are rare and only occur when there is concern of an imminent safety risk.
Engine Alliance, the GE-Pratt venture that built the Air France engine, is assisting investigators and operators and so far has found “no issues that we think would impede any safe flight of the engine,” spokesman Rick Kennedy said. A root cause of the original incident hasn’t yet been determined, he said. Pratt is a division of United Technologies Corp.
A representative for Airbus said the planemaker is providing full technical assistance to the authorities and there’s no data available at this stage that would allow any specific recommendation.
An A380 superjumbo operated by Air France was forced to make an emergency landing in eastern Canada on Sept. 30 after the large fan blade at the front of the turbine, which provides most of its thrust, broke loose on a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Airbus and France’s air-accident investigation bureau dispatched a team of experts to Canada to investigate the aircraft.
After using flight data to pinpoint the location of the failure over the southern tip of Greenland, a helicopter reached the site and recovered pieces of the engine, according to an Oct. 6 statement by France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis, known as BEA.
The engine is being removed and will be sent to a GE facility in Cardiff, U.K., according to BEA. The FAA order doesn’t apply to non-U.S. carriers, but other aviation safety regulators almost always follow the U.S. agency’s lead.
Engine Alliance recommended operators perform visual inspections of the fan hub, a process that takes about two hours, Kennedy said. The order applies to about 125 A380s in service, he said.
Engines with at least 3,500 flights must receive the inspections within two weeks, the FAA said. Those with less than 3,500 flights but more than 2,000 have to be inspected within five weeks.
While engine malfunctions aren’t uncommon, so-called uncontained failures are rarer. They occur when metal parts from within the engine blast through a protective exterior sleeve. Such explosions are serious because they can cause catastrophic damage to the passenger areas, the hydraulics that control the plane or the wings, which hold fuel.
The Air France incident was the most severe on an A380 since Qantas Airways in 2010 grounded all six of its superjumbos after an in-flight explosion on one of the plane’s engines. Those powerplants were made by Rolls-Royce Holdings, which makes the Trent 900 model, the other engine of choice on the A380. The Qantas jet was out of service for 18 months for repairs and retesting.
The FAA directive doesn’t apply to engines made by Rolls-Royce.
Jet engines have become far more reliable and safe since their introduction in passenger service in the late 1950s.
Four-engine aircraft were initially standard, in part because failures occurred relatively frequently. If one had to be shut down, there would be three that continued to work.
Each generation of new technology has improved reliability to the point where two-engine aircraft routinely fly over the most remote oceans and polar regions, and failures occur less than once per million flight hours.
The last fatality directly linked to an engine failure in the U.S. occurred in 1996 in Pensacola, Florida, when a powerplant on an MD-88 operated by Delta Air Lines exploded and metal shrapnel struck passengers, killing two.
The high temperatures and stresses in engines remain difficult to control, however, and incidents continue to occur. A Southwest Airlines Co. plane suffered damage on Aug. 27, 2016, when metal parts blew out of its engine. The Boeing 737-700 landed safely in Florida and no one was injured.