Engine disintegrates on Airbus jumbo jet carrying more than 500 passengers over North Atlantic

A horrifying incident has occurred that could have killed hundreds of passengers and crew aboard Air France Flight 66, an Airbus A 380 flying from Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris to Los Angeles. The airplane landed at Goose Bay, Labrador, after flying a reported 2 hours over the North Atlantic with passengers gazing out their windows at this:

The crew and passengers must have endured tremendous stress following what must have been a jarring and noisy explosion:

Apparently, the fan at the front of the engine completely disintegrated. Here is a picture of the same engine with the cowling removed, showing the large fan at front that is completely missing from the damaged engine.

The engine in question, the GP 7200,  is a product of a joint venture between General Electric and Pratt and Whitney, America’s two large jet engine makers. Until yesterday, it had a stellar record of performance and reliability. No doubt a major investigation is already underway.

If fragments from the engine  had blown toward the airplane’s fuselage instead of away from it, they could have punctured the cabin and caused sudden decompression, or even could have cut flight control wires making the jet impossible to control, and claiming the lives of the 520 passengers, plus the crew who were caring for them.

When the Airbus A 380 was conceived, having four engines was considered a safety issue for long distance flying. But the rapid improvements in engine technology led to much higher rates of reliability, and much higher thrust per engine, allowing the next generation of ultra-long-range passenger aircraft to get by with only 2 engines, like the Boeing 777 and 787, and the Airbus A 330. These airliners are highly fuel-efficient, and it costs half as much to maintain two engines as four. Engine maintenance is very expensive (and very important! – obviously, now). As a result, sales of four engine airliners have dried up, and the A 380 languishes.

The investigation that will follow is going to be watched very closely by every operator of jumbo jets in the world.

And quite a few of us passengers, too.

Ironically, if you are worried about flying with only two engines, just about the only 4-engine airliners flying are both Airbus products. The A 380 and the the A 340. The latter is being rapidly retired from service by airlines, in favor of two engine birds of comparable size and range. All two engine jetliners are capable of flying on only one engine for enough time to reach an airfield, even hours away. This is called ETOPS ("Extended Twin Operations" formally, and known informally as "Engine Turns Or Passengers Swim") certification, and the FAA is quite vigilant.

The Goose Bay airfield hosting the jumbo jet is mostly a Royal Canadian Air Force base. There was a report that passengers were unable to leave the plane because no stairs were available to reach its doors. The story of their ordeal will reach the public when a rescue airplane is sent to take them on to Los Angeles.

Hat tip: Bryan Demko