Reporter: Sarah Ferguson | Broadcast: 28/03/2011

When 440 passengers boarded Qantas Flight 32 bound for Sydney last November, they had every reason to feel confident. They were flying an airline boasting a unique safety record, on the world’s newest, most sophisticated civilian aircraft, powered by prestigious Rolls Royce engines, famous for their reliability. But six minutes into the flight all that would change, when an explosion sent pieces of searing hot metal shooting out of the engine faster than the speed of sound.

Four Corners tells the compelling story of the frightening hours that followed.

From the passengers who looked on in horror as a human-sized hole appeared in one wing… “I’m thinking it’s black debris that’s coming out of the plane, if it hits the fuselage we’re gone”. Passenger Rosemary Hegarty

…to the cabin crew: “The rear of the engine was all smashed and damaged, and the wing was damaged and we could see we were losing fuel and then when my colleague said look, the kangaroo has gone, I knew that was an … engine failure.” Customer Service Manager Michael von Reth

… and the pilots who drew on every ounce of their experience and training to bring the plane under control.

“Matt Hicks is a very competent operator with 15 or so years in Qantas, having flown a 767, 747, A330 and A380 and he was working I would say close to his limit. And I wouldn’t have liked to have seen someone with very low hours trying to do that job on that day.” Second Officer Mark Johnson

And the horrified Qantas staff who tried to verify reports of deaths on the ground as pieces of engine rained down on an Indonesian primary school. Miraculously no-one was hurt, but a piece of shrapnel tore through a classroom ceiling just centimetres away from a 5-year-old boy.

The landing itself was nerve-wracking and fraught with difficulty. As pilot Matt Hicks recalls: “I actually had a swig of water cause I was getting a bit dry in the throat. (I) thought about my wife and kids for a while. Thought I better do a decent job here otherwise I’m not coming home.”

Changi air traffic controllers and firefighters recount how they watched in awe as the plane roared down the runway: “…aircraft on final (approach) fuel streaming from the wing, I think I’ve not seen that in my last 26 years.” Air Traffic controller Tony Tang

But the nightmare wasn’t over. With fuel gushing from the aircraft the risk of fire was extreme and one engine refused to shut down. It was another very long hour before the passengers and crew were finally allowed off the plane.

As the passengers disembarked, the search for the cause of the explosion was already underway. Qantas went into damage control and immediately pointed the finger at the august British engine maker Rolls Royce. What everyone wanted to know was, what caused the explosion and was it safe to fly on the A380?

Reporter Sarah Ferguson takes us through the hunt for clues as the investigators cordoned off the plane as if it were a crime scene. They describe the ‘golden bullet’ moment when the source of the fire was discovered. The program also reveals the problems Rolls Royce experienced with the engine prior to the Qantas incident.

“QF32” offers a gripping forensic account of a truly terrifying mid-air incident.

Four Corners, presented by Kerry O’Brien, goes to air on Monday 28th March at 8.30pm on ABC 1. It is replayed on Tuesday 29th March at 11.35 pm. You can also see the program on ABCNews24 at 8.00pm each Saturday, on ABC iview or at abc.net.au/4corners.



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