QANTAS is accelerating the overhaul of its Boeing 747-400 engines amid accusations it tried to depict an engine malfunction on a flight from South Africa ''as anything but an explosion''.
A 747 jumbo bound for Sydney was forced to return to Johannesburg two hours into its journey on Friday night after one of its four Rolls-Royce engines malfunctioned. The jet was carrying the Springboks rugby team, which is playing Australia in the opening match of the Tri-Nations competition on Saturday.
Qantas dismissed claims that the engine had exploded as incorrect.
But Mark Sowerby, a passenger on QF64, said he saw flames shoot from the rear of one of the plane's engines for several seconds before they were extinguished.
''Contrary to the Qantas spin on events, the number three engine near the exit row I was seated in blew up,'' the Brisbane businessman said yesterday.
Mr Sowerby said that at a hotel in Johannesburg he witnessed staff being told not to use the word ''explosion''.
Yesterday Qantas maintained that the engine had not exploded, although it said there could have been sparks.
"This incident was not an 'explosion' by any technical definition - the failure was fully contained by the engine," a spokesman said.
Qantas also said it had not received reports of staff being told not to refer to the incident as an ''explosion''.
The airline said engineers were still determining the specific cause of the malfunction on Friday but it was likely to be a contained failure of a blade from the engine's high-pressure compressor. The pilots on QF64 had shut down the number three engine after noticing an increase in vibration and temperature.
''[It] is not a safety risk and is not exclusive to Qantas," the spokesman said. ''Other airlines have experienced this type of issue with RB211 engines.''
A Qantas 747 suffered a similar engine failure shortly after take-off from Singapore last November. It was carrying passengers who had been on board a Qantas A380 which narrowly avoided disaster after suffering an engine explosion a day earlier.
Qantas has modified engines on about a quarter of its 26-strong fleet of 747-400 aircraft but has now accelerated the rate at which the engines are overhauled by Rolls-Royce engineers at maintenance facilities in Hong Kong, Singapore or Derby in England.
It now expects all of the RB211 engines fitted to its jumbos to be modified within the next 12 to 18 months.Rolls-Royce has been directing airlines which have the RB211 engine fitted to their aircraft to undertake modifications when they are next scheduled for a major maintenance check. It has not issued any new directives in light of the Qantas incident at the weekend.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority said Qantas was keeping it informed about the performance of its RB211 engines and the program to replace the compressor blades.
The 747-400 involved in the latest incident is awaiting a replacement engine in Johannesburg but is expected to return to service within the next few days.