air safety

Jun 26, 2017

Why did AirAsia X fly a crippled jet away from a nearby airport in WA yesterday?

There are some deeply troubling questions to ask about this latest AirAsia X incident in Australian skies

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

An AirAsia X A330-300

No-one asked the critical question yesterday about the AirAsia X flight that returned to Perth after about 90 minutes of flight with a severely disabled engine that vibrated like a malfunctioning washing machine.

Why didn’t this jet land immediately at Learmonth (near Exmouth)  in compliance with the internationally accepted safety rule that requires a twin engine airliner to land at the first available suitably equipped airport if one engine fails or is shut down?

The AirAsia X flight to Kuala Lumpur, an A330-300 with 359 people on board, was about 370 kms from the fully equipped alternative airfield when one of its engines ingested a fractured fan blade according to the Aviation Herald.

Yet instead of heading directly to Learmonth, the big wide body twin airliner was turned around and flown for around 720 kilometres back to Perth, during which time maritime rescue services were put on alert for a possible ditching in the sea north of the city.

AirAsia X, the Australian safety regulator CASA, and the Australian air safety investigator the ATSB, all have some very serious matters to consider. And the joke media that passes for news reporting in this country needs to hire reporters smart enough to take a look at the maps and look up the rules that apply to airliners that suffer in flight engine failures.

(Visited 141 times, 1 visits today)


Leave a comment

55 thoughts on “Why did AirAsia X fly a crippled jet away from a nearby airport in WA yesterday?

  1. comet

    Answer: To save money.

    Air Asia X is a low-cost carrier of the lowest order. Air Asia and its subsidiaries have a long history of cutting costs on safety by flying around with defective parts, just like an AirAsia aircraft flew to Australia countless times with a defective rudder travel limiter before crashing into the Java sea as AirAsia Flight 8501.

    1. Creeper

      Serious questions to be answered from CASA.

      If the investigation provides further issues with this said company’s operating procedures they need to be banned from Australian Airspace immediately.

      We are rolling the dice now. Playing with lives.

  2. Will Helm

    Ben, it might have been too heavy to land, and needed to spend time dumping fuel. Since he’d be in the air anyway, the captain (or his controllers at Air Asia) might have decided to go back to Perth.

    However, there is a more serious issue – looking at the videos the plane is vibrating badly. “Like a washing machine” according to the passengers.
    “A blade had sheared off an engine, the captain told passengers at one point” according to Perth Now.

    This sort of thing happens. Why did he not just shut down the bad engine, and land on the good one? This is the big question in my mind.

    There is a more disturbing idea: that perhaps the avionics may have been hit by the long range radar facilities nearby. Two Qantas flights (71 and 72) had problems injuring passengers in the same area in 2008. At the time, the Australian and International Pilots Association called for commercial aircraft to be barred from the area as a precaution until the events are better understood.

    1. ghostwhowalksnz

      The Aviation Herald report says the engine was shut down as you would expect

    2. caf

      The vibration would have been from the shutdown engine windmilling.

  3. discus

    I have heard the vibration was so severe, a hydraulic pump liberated itself from the engine. I would be quite concerned about the engine to strut mounts and associated hardware.
    One does wonder if the crew seriously considered the actual nearest airport or just decided to head back to PER as if there was no nearer alternate. A few hours of that just seems crazy and hard to justify not getting it down asap.

    1. comet

      There should be concern about the engine pylons, and also the airframe itself.

      No doubt AirAsia will return the airframe to service after minimal inspection, considering they’re quite happy to have defective rudders flying to and from Australia.

      When I think of engine mount problems, it always reminds me of American Airlines Flight 191, a DC-10 that suffered a separation of the engine and pylon assembly during takeoff, crashing into a Chicago suburb.

      This is where AirAsia X is headed. We should closely monitor this aircraft and follow what AirAsia does with it.

  4. ghostwhowalksnz

    Back in February a Swiss 777 on the way to LAX had ‘engine problems’ ( later found to be a fuel pump related) not an engine failure and they put down in the town of Iquluit in the Canadian arctic rather than travelling further to Gander or similar. Yes it was more complicated to divert a replacement plane and get An124 to bring a GE90 engine
    But you get the impression Swiss put its passenger safety first rather than convenience.

  5. nightflyer

    An overweight landing is just a little bit more desirable than losing the second engine

  6. Tricot

    A damned good question…..Geraldton was ruled out as the plane was “too heavy” to land on that strip. I have no idea how capable local Geraldton would be for this type of aircraft but with the plane shaking like the said washing machine, I wonder if the flight crew were under other (company) imperatives to head back to Perth? So say, the crew was in touch with Perth airport but if I had been a passenger on board, I would have every right to ask, being a sh%$$t scared passenger, why not get this thing down ASP????
    The issue with the likes of Air Asia, is that its great of offer low fares on new or near-new aircraft but when they get a bit older…….well…………what then? In defence, it might be asked if the Qantas plane which had computer problems should have put down sooner also?

    1. discus

      If you are referring to the QF72 incident, it occurred about 150km from Learmonth where it landed. It was iirc, was the nearest suitable airport where it could land. Correct procedures followed.

  7. JW (aka James Wilson)

    Learmonth a “fully equipped alternative airfield”? Not by international standards – it doesn’t meet the ICAO definition of an adequate airfield, because it doesn’t have rescue/fire fighting services. It’s approved by CASA as an international alternate, but only because the rules that apply in Australia don’t meet ICAO standards.

    1. comet

      No ARFF (Rescue & Fire Fighting) at Learmonth, but don’t all those airlines flying to Perth agree – just by being there – that they will use Learmonth if Perth is rendered inoperable?

      It always makes me wonder what would happen if Perth airport was closed by weather or catastrophe. There would be an influx of large airliners wanting to land at Learmonth, where the biggest issue would be lack of parking space to hold them.

      1. JW (aka James Wilson)

        That depends. Some overseas airlines that service Perth won’t plan to use Learmonth at the pre-flight planning stage because it doesn’t have any RFF. If necessary, the closest alternates they’ll plan are Adelaide or Bali. Nevertheless, Learmonth is available if push comes to shove and they run out of other options, as occasionally happens in winter with unforecast fog.

        1. comet

          I understand that Learmonth has only one parking bay for heavy aircraft. Maybe they could try parking planes nose-to-tail along the taxiways during that unforecast fog!

          Anyway, I think AirAsia still has a case to answer for in the coming ATSB inquiry.

          1. JW (aka James Wilson)

            There’s only one bay on the civil side, but a much larger apron is available on the military side. It’s been used by civil aircraft in the past.

  8. Tom Wood

    Closer RAAF Learmouth, with a 3km runway, in the day time, would seem the sensible option. It says on Wikipedia an AirAsia flight landed their in 2012 (but I can’t find a backup source). Hopefully the investigation considers it carefully.

  9. comet

    Look at the photo of the AirAsia aircraft at the top of this page. The logo on the tail looks like red splattered blood. It must be in memory of all the “guests” they’ve killed already.

    But, you know, they sell the cheapest tickets!

    1. Zarathrusta

      It’s more than 80% certain that any heavy jet crash in Australia in the next five years will have red on its tail.

  10. Tango

    Well I have gotten grief for the contention you take the closest acceptable airport.

    Nothing says you can’t dump fuel as you turn and make your approach.

    On the other hand, maybe once or twice a year a 777 loses an engine over the Pacific and has a two or three hour flight to one of the Aleutian airports.

    Weather is guaranteed to be bad and they are out of choices.

    Ergo, ETROPS, you can fly perfectly fine on one engine (until it quits to and someday that is going to happen, actually did with Sullenberg)

    As PIC I know what my decision would be. But then you have the bright BA officers who flew a 747 from about Las Vegas, across the entire US with an engine out, then proceeded on over the Atlantic only to make an emergency landing because of fuel issues in Ireland.

    GB defended their decision to the death, US authorities wanted to hang them.

    Makes for a pretty mucked up world.

    1. Dan Dair

      A B747 can fly on two engines, once the weight of fuel comes down & BA engineering cleared the pilots to proceed. Pilot discretion applies for a 4-engine which, would never be the case for a big-twin.

      The Capt. Sullenberg river-landing, supremely skilful as it was,
      had nothing whatsoever to do with ETOPS regulations.

      At this stage though,
      I would agree with you that it makes sense to continue back to Perth if, & only if, a significant amount of fuel dumping or straightforward fuel-use was required, to bring the aircraft down to an acceptable landing-weight.?
      There’s no point in flying directly to Learmonth to cover-their-asses, if they then break the bloody thing on the ground by landing significantly overweight.?

      1. JW (aka James Wilson)

        The A330-300 does not have the capability to jettison fuel. Nevertheless, it can land overweight if required, subject to the available landing distance. Learmonth has a 10,000 ft runway, but even that would not be long enough for an overweight landing with an engine out if the weight was more than about 210T. At 210T it would be marginal. What would you do?

        1. Ben Sandilands

          To answer your question, or rather decline to, its not about what any of us would do but what the captain did. The videos make it clear this was a challenging control situation. It doesn’t seem clear if it was the captain who urged passengers to pray. Or if it was on his part that the authorities were urged to prepare for a possible ditching before the flight reached Perth. Together with concerns by other pilots in various forums as to what the shaking was doing to the airframe and associated damage we are left with a lot to consider. Keeping a jet in the air and flying away from a runway Qantas used in the QF72 control crisis, while the authorities are told it might be put into the sea before it reaches Perth, suggests to me at least that the ATSB has a great deal to sort out.

          1. JW (aka James Wilson)

            I agree, there is a lot to consider and I’m not saying the Capt’s decision to return to Perth rather than divert to Learmonth was necessarily correct. After all, I wasn’t there. Nevertheless, the decision to divert to Learmonth is not as simple as some of the armchair experts would like to believe, given landing weight considerations, lack of emergency services, etc.

          2. derrida derider

            I’m intrigued by the fact that a lot of jets these days don’t have provision for fuel dumping. I should have thought that was a cheap, simple, light and reliable feature to have for emergencies.
            Perhaps the manufacturers are worried about a panicked AF447 type crew pulling the wrong handle in the middle of the Pacific. But you’d think a simple interlock (eg both crew are needed to open the valve) would fix that.

          3. Tango

            Dan Dair:

            Once again you expose your lack of understanding and knowledge about aircraft and operations.

            You don’t realize that a dead engine is drag. Two dead engines are worse drag.

            The fact that the BA pilots proceeded across the Atlantic knowing their fuel usage was much higher was grossly stupid and incompetent piloting.

            That is the plane simple truth.

        2. ghostwhowalksnz

          Isnt the landing overweight issues about the landing configuration ( with one engine gone) as well. Maybe be difficult even for test pilots.

    2. comet

      Tango said: “once or twice a year a 777 loses an engine over the Pacific and has a two or three hour flight to one of the Aleutian airports.”

      From that you could calculate the probability of how long it will likely take before a 777 loses both engines and ends up in the ocean.

  11. George Glass

    Ah,Learmonth……I’m guessing that all the armchair critics have never been there. I have.No customs.No fire services. No ATC. No engineering.No Met.Nadda.Zip.Only classified as an “alternate”because Australia is ,well,Australia. To call it Third World is insulting most of Asia that long since left Australia way, way behind. Would not be surprised if AirAsia classed Learmonth as Adequate only,in which case there would be no requirement to divert there.AirAsia might be dodgy but its Australia’s aviation facilities that are the real embarressment.

    1. ghostwhowalksnz

      Customs ? Not necessary for emergency landing ( they were leaving an Australian airport anyway). No ATC , again not necessary either.

      1. JW (aka James Wilson)

        The aircraft and passengers were cleared out of the country at Perth. As far as Customs & Immigration are concerned, they have left the country. If they subsequently divert and land on Australian territory, they must be cleared back into the country. Learmonth does not have the staff or facilities available to do that easily, if at all. The passengers and crew would probably be required to remain onboard the aircraft until a rescue aircraft arrived to take them back to Perth or on to their destination. Nevertheless, that kind of inconvenience should not affect the decision to divert. The aim is to get the aircraft and occupants on the ground safely, regardless of commercial or other considerations.

        1. caf

          Diverted international passengers in past at Canberra (before it had C&I) have been allowed to deplane and hang around on the tarmac until a replacement crew arrived to take them onward to Sydney.

          1. JW (aka James Wilson)

            Learmonth isn’t Canberra. Even if they were allowed on to the tarmac, they’d probably be there for the best part of a day while arrangements were made to get them out. Frankly, I’d rather stay on the aircraft.

  12. comet

    The best part of this story is the AirAsia pilot who made the announcement requesting that all passengers start to prey. That’s hilarious!

    1. Dan Dair

      on eachother.???
      Cannibalism usually starts about three weeks AFTER the plane has crashed, not whilst they’re still in the air.?
      Still if they’ve eaten eachother it might make the plane that bit lighter.?!!!

      1. JW (aka James Wilson)

        “Still if they’ve eaten eachother it might make the plane that bit lighter.?!!!”

        Really? How does that work? After all, they can’t exactly take a dump over the side!

        1. Dan Dair

          I knew that,
          I was trying to extend the joke & make it less about the spelling mistake that had made me laugh in the first place.!

          1. Tango

            I assume you think if you leave your refrigerator door open it will cool the room as well?

          2. Dan Dair

            I’ve seen the episode of Tom & Jerry where they turn the kitchen into an ice rink by leaving the fridge open.!!!!

      2. comet

        Yes, I wish there was an edit button to correct spelling. But I guess I deserve the jokes for that one.

        1. Dan Dair

          Sorry for making you the butt of that particular spoof,
          but it did make me giggle.!

          If you remember, there used to be a preview button & separate publish button on the old Plane Talking blog pages, before Crikey updated it about 18 months ago.
          I suppose I’m not the only one who misses it then.?

    2. Rais

      If the pilot was Muslim or a Malaysian Christian even, my experience of Malaysia is that this would be a very normal thing to say although it wouldn’t have come across to Australians in the same way. Traditional Muslims and at least Asian Christians pray for a good result in any such circumstance.

      1. Mark Skinner

        I recall on flights to/from Europe in the early 90s in Royal Brunei 767s that they played a Muslim prayer (for travellers iirc) just after the safety briefing. Plus the screens had an arrow showing the direction to Mecca.

        We got there safely.

  13. ghostwhowalksnz

    Remember the Air AsiaX flight last year that decided to return to the airport on climb out from Sydney ( some problem with the navigation display) so they returned … Tullamarine.

  14. George Glass

    Ghost,I think you will find it was a lot worse than that. They departed with the wrong departure point in the FMC. They were effectively “lost” as soon as they got airborne. Should have lost their Operaters Certificate for that incident alone.

    1. Creeper

      The only way out of this is the ceasing of the AOC. Clearly the implemented safety recommendations that come out of every report are doing nothing. So it will continue to happen, what are we waiting for, it appears we are waiting for a big accident before anything is done?

      One to watch out for is the near collision with Jetstar at the Gold Coast, report released next month. Jetstar were very public when this occurred in that they were not at fault. AirAsia said nothing.

      1. Dan Dair

        Let’s not jump-the-gun on either of these incidents.
        The current thread on these pages is that at the time of the incident, the AirAsiaX plane was too heavy to land at Learmouth. They could have circled to burn-off fuel, but since Learmouth has no Fire & Rescue on site (& no civil maintenance sheds), it seems (at this stage) as if burning fuel to get the weight down whilst circling back to Perth, with the fully knowledge & co-operation of ATC, might have been the most sensible & appropriate way to proceed.?
        Time will tell.?

        Regarding the Gold Coast incident;
        Air Asia may have said nothing because they were at fault, but equally it might have been because they felt they had nothing to apologise for.?
        When “Jetstar were very public when this occurred in that they were not at fault”, it may have been because they wanted to make sure that they got their PR version of events out into the media & the public eye early.?
        Or of course, it may have been that it actually wasn’t their fault.?
        That’s why we have enquiries & reports.!!!

        1. Dan Dair

          Regarding removal of AiAsiaX’s op’s certificate,
          it is worth noting JW (Aka James Wilson)’s posting of June 26, 2017 at 7:25 pm,
          where he reminds us that Learmonth is accepted by Australian aviation, but it totally fails ICAO world standards.

          There’s not a lot of point in pointing accusing fingers at those bloody foreigners,
          if we’re not going to have an equally critical look at what & why the standards are so low at home.?

  15. ghostwhowalksnz

    Another thing that stood out for me. Here was a A330-300 with 359 people on board. The passenger seating for this model with AAX is 377 with only 12 business class seats.
    This is proof that being squeezed 9 across in 16.5 in width seats is no issue for a lot of aussie travellers. Clearly the reason more and more airliners are doing is because thats what the customers want. I dont think I would prefer to fly Sydney to Melbourne in a 16.5 in seat and yet we have 350 choosing to do so for a long haul

    1. Ben Sandilands

      I don’t have definitive stats at the ready, but many of the AirAsia X flights appear to have a substantial proportion of non-Australian residents on board. The definite trend in carriage by Asia flag carriers serving Australia is for their national patronage to grow more strongly than their success in attracting Australian nationals, even including those of us who may be of Asian descent. This shouldn’t of course mean that they should get a pass on any Australian regulations, anymore than Australian flag carriers should expect anything less than full compliance would be required of them in Asia controlled skies.

  16. StickShaker

    Getting back to the Learmonth issue, when QF72 landed after their in flight incident the passengers were accommodated at the military base overnight and then flown to Perth the next day (on different aircraft). They didn’t have to stand on the tarmac for 24 hours.
    The main runway at Perth airport is 3.44 km long – is that extra 440 meters vital for a 330 landing even if the aircraft is overweight. While reverse thrust would be less due to having on engine out the aircraft should still have fully functional brakes, spoilers and flaps – a luxury that was not afforded to QF32 landing in Singapore.
    I see things such as the lack of customs, immigration, ATC and engineering services at Learmonth as being trivial and should have no bearing on a captains decision to divert or not during an emergency. The lack of emergency services, while undesirable should not impede a pilots decision to land an aircraft that was certainly not operating normally and should not have been kept in the air any longer than absolutely necessary.
    From what I have read on the Aviation Herald site the severe vibrations were due to the engine windmilling (turning in the airstream) while being seriously out of balance due to the missing fan blade(s).
    A pilots decision to divert would not only be based upon the existing circumstances and operating capability of the aircraft but whether those capabilities would change or deteriorate during the significant flight time required to reach a well equipped but distant airport rather than a much closer alternate.
    Deliberately exposing an airframe to 90 minutes or more of severe vibrations is not a decision to be taken lightly and one that will certainly be subject to rigorous scrutiny in upcoming investigations.

    1. JW (aka James Wilson)

      Some of the passengers may have been accommodated at the RAAF Base overnight (remember it’s a bare base, so very basic accommodation), but the following Qantas press release suggests a good number of passengers were flown out by Flying Doctor or two special flights arranged by Qantas the day of the incident:
      Given the injuries and damage to the cabin, they would have been left with little choice but to get people off the aircraft.

      Regarding landing distance, the required distance is greater because full landing flap cannot be used for landing due to the performance penalty if the crew needs to go around with one engine inoperative. There is a further additive if the aircraft is landing overweight. I don’t know what the aircraft’s weight was in this incident, but given the landing distance available at Learmonth, the maximum landing weight would have been about 213T (Max take-off weight: 233T, Max landing weight: 187T).

      I agree that considerations such as lack of CIQ, company support, etc should have no bearing on the decision to divert. The aim is to get the aircraft on the ground as soon as possible, at the nearest suitable airport. On that point, it’s worth remembering that, if necessary, these aircraft are certified to fly for up to 180 minutes to the nearest suitable airport after suffering an engine failure. Severe engine damage and the associated vibration (as happened here) is considered during the ETOPS certification process. However, that does not mean you can keep flying for 180 minutes and bypass airports along the way; the requirement is to land at the nearest suitable airport. Continued flight beyond the nearest suitable airport is only justified if that is a safer option, having considered ALL the relevant safety factors, including the nature of the failure and operational effects, flight times to suitable airports, landing performance, weather, terrain, crew familiarity, etc. I certainly hope the ATSB explores the crew’s thought processes in that regard.

      1. Tango

        Spot on. And we know one day there will be a dual engine failure for whatever reasons and then its a nice water landing if we are lucky.

        Part of the gamble, life has all sorts of risks, that one is low.

        but when it occurs, it affect 200-350 people all at once, and that does make headlines.

  17. Tango

    here is another one:

    We don’t know what it is, we don’t know how serious it can become, but as we don’t know and we paid lip service by calling everyone and spreading the decision around (and blame) , lets leek going.

    Some years back I had an airplane that the oil temp went right at the top of the green splitting the needle with the red.

    Oil pressure was normal, a bit low, I headed to the nearest field and landed, keeping plenty of altitude I could glide in if it all went South.

    On the ground, oil level full, appearance was good, no leaks, engine cooling not obscured, no foreign object found under the hood.

    I took off, did a circling climb and it came back up, so I climbed to 5000 which was high enough to glide to one good filed or another if it quit, went over the hills to Oakland Airport and landed

    I wrote it up, Chief Pilot and I had a talk. He said, its ok. I said, no, there is something wrong. I have flown it and the rest we have, you never see it over about 2/3 green even on a really hot day. This is merely warm, we have flown hotter. Its almost into the red and that’s with mild maneuvers.

    I have not a clue, but something is not right. After a bit of discussion he said, good points, I will have the mechanics look at it.

    They took it in, it had them puzzled, not sure what they went through, upshot was they drained the oil to cross check the sump debris, pulled the oil filer and found it had collapsed.

    That’s how it should be done. If you have something odd, you land. You don’t just wang on.

    Same thing on that tail strike. You know you took a good hit but your detector does not go off? Assume the detector has failed and land and get it checked out structurally .

    1. Dan Dair

      “….on that tail strike. You know you took a good hit but your detector does not go off? Assume the detector has failed and land and get it checked out structurally”

      Assuming you’re correct,
      then there’s absolutely no point in Boeing bothering to develop & fit a tail-strike indicator then, is there.?

      You have a tail-strike & it goes-off, you land.
      You have a tail-strike & it doesn’t go-off, you assume the indicator’s broken & you land.

      It’s extra weight & you obviously can’t trust it.!
      So why bother to fit the indicator in the first place.?

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details