Richard Champion de Crespigny flew with the RAAF for 11 years, before flying Qantas jets for three and a half decades. In 2010, he famously helped save the lives of 469 passengers and crew when an engine exploded on the Airbus A380 he was in command of. I spoke to him on Friday.
Fitz: Richard, the news this week is that – as a cost-saving exercise – regulators and a number of airlines around the globe are pushing towards just one pilot in the cockpit. We’ll get to that. But first, tell me the story of flight QF32 from Singapore to Sydney on November 4, 2010, while we reflect on how you would have gone if you were alone. Please start in the traditional manner for all disasters, with “First, I heard a loud bang...”
Richard de Crespigny helped save the lives of 469 passengers and crew on board an Airbus A380.
RDC: First I heard two loud bangs. The first one was an engine surge, or backfire of Engine No.2. The second was the sound of the turbine exploding into three pieces that exited the engine at over two and a half times the speed of sound.
Fitz: Captain, my captain, I’m with you in the cockpit, and we’re in trouble. What’s the damage?
RDC: It’s like a cluster-bomb. Shrapnel has hit the fuselage in over 400 locations, with 200 impacts on the fuselage, 200 on the wing, even 20 to the top of the eight-story high tail fin. 650 wires are cut, and half the networks fail. Twenty one of the aircraft’s 22 systems are degraded.
Fitz: Captain, I wish to report that, to use the technical term, we are in deep shit! What now?
QF32’s crippled engine after touchdown in Singapore.Credit:AAP
RDC: Stay calm. When things go wrong unexpectedly, the fear response of “fight, flight or freeze” kicks in and...
Fitz: And I choose flight! Let’s keep this kite in the air!
RDC: (Laughs, lightly.) In an emergency, only about 15 per cent of people will make decisions that help them, 15 per cent of the people will make decisions that hinder their survival and 70 per cent of the people basically just follow the herd. So, in this first 30 seconds of a crisis, before our slow logical brain gets back in sync, human instincts are not helpful. But pilots are trained to act calmly. We have a motto called “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate”. It determines whether you live or die in a crisis. Right now, we need to aviate – stay alive, fly the aircraft – keep it in the air. Then we navigate, get the plane into a safe place – on a safe heading and speed above the mountains. And then we finally communicate – start talking to others.
Fitz: You are very calm. I am not.
QF32 on the ground in Singapore. Credit:AAP
RDC: Right now, distracting alarms are sounding continuously, the A380’s displays are scrolling endless warnings and the big red light keeps flashing even after continually being reset. So many things are broken on this aircraft. No engines are operating normally, there is a “fuel jettison fault”, and auto-thrust and auto-land systems are inoperative.
Fitz: But at least there are five pilots in the cockpit: you, the First Officer, the Second Officer, and the two “check pilots”. Who are these last two pilots, again?
RDC: A “check pilot” is one there to conduct a check on me, to make sure I am doing everything right, one of seven checks/tests every pilot goes through every year to keep their license current. In this case, that check pilot had another check pilot who was training him. We have a lot of expertise in this cockpit, but right now I need to aviate, and I don’t talk to the other pilots for the first 30 seconds. I level the aircraft – we are above the mountains. I stop it turning and I check the speed, which for unknown reasons is rapidly increasing. We are about to overspeed the aircraft! I don’t have time to work out why, so I grab the thrust levers and pull them back. The speed stabilises, so I am now manually back in control. The other pilots are saying nothing. With no distractions, their job is simply to monitor my every action to secure safe flight. If I miss something, then they will tell me. Today they are silent. We are five minds silently linked together into one massive brain with one aim – to stay alive in the first 30 seconds of a crisis.
Fitz: But Captain, now everything is failing! At first glance, there are 50 systems down. Speak to us. What are your first words?
RDC: “We are at a safe altitude, on a constant heading, above the mountains, the speed is constant. ECAM Actions.” That command is to my First Officer Matt Hicks, to now go head-down and action the checklists that the Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor has displayed. The checklists list actions to fix things or mitigate their failures. The A380 has four million parts, 250,000 sensors and parameters and 1225 checklists. It’s very complex. And because all systems are integrated, sometimes when something goes wrong it has a knock-on effect that degrades other systems. So, as Matt actions over 100 checklists in the air, I monitor not just the growing list of multiple initial failures but I calculate the complex undocumented knock-on effects.
Fitz: And we can’t just blindly do what the checklist recommends, but must apply our own judgment?
RDC: Exactly. In this case, as an example, the checklist is flashing to say one wing is heavier than the other, and so transfer fuel to balance the weights. But the problem is that even with 250,000 sensors, there aren’t enough to get the whole picture of the fuel system. We had multiple fuel tanks we could see were leaking tons of fuel and the system was telling us to transfer fuel from the good wing into the leaking wing, which was not just wrong, it would have made our situation worse. By delegating tasks among the five pilots and consulting each other, we are creating novel solutions thinking outside the square, amassing all our knowledge training and experience, making decisions as a team. We decided to ignore that fuel checklist. Even today, I would not change any of the hundreds of decisions we made that day. That’s not a reflection on me. It’s a reflection on the ability of the team of five pilots in the cockpit to come together to pool all of our knowledge, training and experience to become one resilient team.
Fitz: Finally, using all that combined expertise, we get QF32 stable and limp back towards Runway 21C at Changi Airport. But even now, the landing looks like it’s going to be as hairy as John Lennon in 1972?
RDC: Yes. The plane is unbalanced and 45 tonnes overweight for landing. The brakes have lost anti-skid and 60 per cent capacity. We only have reverse thrust on No.3 Engine, we’re still leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid, and spoilers and ailerons will not give us normal speed brake functions on the ground. And a whole lot more...
Fitz: I do hope someone says, just like in the famous movie Flying High: ”Surely, you can’t be serious!” Whereupon you say, “I am serious, and stop calling me Shirley!”
RDC: (Laughs.) No. There was no joking. But in the whole time of bringing it down, nor was there a single swear word. All of us were just concentrating, working out how to overcome the many problems we were facing. I was reminded of the line from NASA’s Chief Flight Director Gene Kranz in the face of the potential disaster of Apollo 13: “Don’t focus on what’s failed, focus on what is working.”
Fitz: Bring this kite down, Captain! Wheels down. And everyone in the brace position.
The ‘miracle of the Hudson’. Credit:AAP
RDC: We touched down early, just beyond the threshold of the runway, and came to a stop 100 metres short from the end of the 4000 metre-long runway. What we did that day could never have been done by just one pilot alone – no matter how advanced the automated systems are today.
Fitz: Applause, from the passengers and crew. We are saved! Now, given that experience, you think it madness to go to a one-pilot system?
RDC: Madness. Automation is fine as a tool, but it is the sentient crew that counts when the automation fails and you cannot stop or call for a rescue. When something goes wrong you need at least two well-trained, experienced pilots in the pilots’ seats to analyse the problem and to sometimes create novel solutions to solve it. Adding a second pilot doesn’t double your skills, the benefit is exponential. And that’s why I’m amazed that the safety authorities don’t understand the human factors of safety in an aircraft. Why would you knowingly reduce the most critical asset for the passengers’ survival to just one pilot in the cockpit? It just makes absolutely no sense at all.
Fitz: And you’re not alone in this view, as you were telling me about the thoughts of “Sully” Sullenberger, the captain of the “Miracle on the Hudson” the year before your own heroics, who brought a huge plane down on the Hudson River in New York, saving all 155 passengers...
Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger speaks during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation hearing in Washington.Credit:Bloomberg
RDC: Yes. I was talking to Sully yesterday, and he has the same frustration that I have about why this topic is even surfacing. He said that basically the biggest advance for aviation safety since the Second World War has been based on having at least two fully licensed, competent pilots in the cockpit at all times. To move away from that is reckless, and dangerous. He specifically said, “Those who propose single-pilot airline operations are wrong, dead wrong.”
Fitz: The other pilot you knew well, who knew something about facing crises, was a fellow by the name of Neil Armstrong, and he even wrote the foreword of your book, QF32.
RDC: Oh, yeah. He was a good friend. I sent him the manuscript, and he sent me the foreword and I cried. I was just flabbergasted.
Fitz: Thanks for allowing me to fly with you today. It’s been an honour. Crew: Disarm doors and cross-check.
“Respect existence or expect resistance.” – On the t-shirt of the beloved and elderly Sydney activist, Danny Lim, as he was released from hospital on Wednesday following what appeared to be a needlessly aggressive arrest by two police officers on Tuesday in the QVB building.
Napoleon is at a huge military parade in Moscow, alongside President Putin, engrossed in reading Pravda. At Napoleon’s other side is his 2IC, Marshal Michel Ney, who blurts out to him, “Regardez, Your Majesty! If only we had such guns, we would not lose Waterloo!”
Napoleon keeps reading. Ney blurts out again, “Regardez, Your Majesty! If only we had such tanks, we would not lose Waterloo!”
Napoleon only keeps reading. Ney blurts out the third time, “Regardez, Your Majesty! If only we had such rockets, we would not lose Waterloo!“
Napoleon finally looks up from his copy of Pravda and wistfully says to Ney, “If only we had such newspapers, nobody would ever know that we lost Waterloo.“
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