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THE AirAsia X plane that suffered an engine failure on Sunday could have lost the entire engine and ripped out fuel lines, a former Airbus A330 check and training captain has warned.
The warning by the 40-year flying veteran came as the Australian Transport Safety Bureau yesterday classified the failure as a serious incident and AirAsia X defended its safety reputation.
“When an engine has severe vibrations it must be shut down immediately as the damage that can be inflicted is immense,” the former training captain said.
“The engine can detach from the wing, which could be catastrophic. Fuel lines (could be) ripped open and electrics severely damaged or degraded.
“It must be treated like an engine fire. And if after shutdown, it is free-wheeling with a missing blade and the severe vibrations continue you must divert to the nearest suitable airport,” the veteran pilot said.
AirAsia X has released few details of the incident which is understood to involve the failure of a fan blade in the No.1 engine.
It destroyed hydraulic components and an oil pump before being ingested by the engine.
The ATSB is liaising with engine maker Rolls-Royce about the failure and said it expected to produce a report in “a couple of months” after interviewing personnel and gathering additional information.
“The flight crew detected moderate airframe vibrations and the No.1 engine failed,” it said in a statement.
“The aircraft was unable to maintain altitude and the crew conducted a return to Perth.”
Why the plane continued shaking and why it did not divert to nearby Learmonth when the incident occurred near Carnarvon at 8.16am on Sunday will be investigated.
An engine expert said it was possible an out-of-balance fan could windmill after the engine was shut down and still cause a low-frequency vibration.
He said it was “a pretty massive failure” and there would be only two reasons for it: a manufacturing flaw or poor quality inspection during maintenance.
AirAsia X defended its safety record in a statement and said it was co-operating with Rolls-Royce and safety authorities. It pointed out Malaysia-based AirAsia X had undergone global safety audits by the International Air Transport Association in 2015 and 2016.
“We would like to stress Air-Asia Group has always strictly followed the maintenance program prescribed by our manufacturers,’’ it said.
“We have also complied with all requirements of every country where the airline operates, including Australia.”
A source said the pilots were alerted to the problem by a monitoring system and then heard and felt the vibration from the stricken engine. They shut the engine down, did a 180-degree turn and returned to Perth.
Australia’s crash watchdog will investigate why the A330 pilots did not divert to Learmonth, 25 minutes away, rather than fly the 90 minutes back to Perth.
The loss of one engine on a twin-engine aircraft requires the crew to divert to the nearest suitable airport but the term “suitable” leaves room for pilot discretion on safety grounds.