SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Qantas Airways and Singapore Airlines suspended flights of Airbus A380 superjumbos on Thursday after an engine appeared to break apart in flight, forcing a Qantas jet to make an emergency landing in Singapore.
Indonesian TV showed pictures of debris on a nearby island which it said belonged to the Qantas Airways plane, and one passenger aboard flight QF32 reported hearing a “massive bang.” Qantas described it as a “significant” engine failure.
Authorities said none of the 459 people on board were hurt.
Qantas and Singapore Airlines both grounded their fleet of A380s and British engine maker Rolls-Royce issued a statement urging operators of the aircraft to perform safety checks on its Trent 900 engines.
German airline Lufthansa said it would conduct those checks without interrupting flights.
“This was a significant engine failure,” Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce told reporters in Sydney. “We are not underestimating the significance of this issue.”
Rolls-Royce, whose shares were down more than 5 percent, said earlier it was working with authorities to understand the incident and Airbus, whose shares fell 4 percent, said it would provide full technical assistance to Australian and French accident investigators.
One of the Airbus A380’s four Rolls-Royce engines failed minutes after it had left Singapore for Sydney. The flight had begun in London.
Passengers said they saw parts of the engine fall off.
“I just heard this massive bang, like a shotgun going off,” Tyler Wooster told Australia’s Network Nine television. “Part of the skin had peeled off and you could see the foam underneath, pieces of broken wires sticking out.”
Qantas, which operates six A380s, said it was grounding the aircraft pending a full investigation.
Singapore Airlines said it will delay all flights on its A380 fleet pending precautionary checks recommended by Airbus and Rolls-Royce.
Emirates said it was not considering suspending flights as its engines are from a different supplier. Air France said it would continue to use the aircraft as normal.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau was leading the investigation into the incident, Joyce said. Passengers will stay in Singapore overnight and another plane will be dispatched for them on Friday morning.
Initial media reports said the plane had crashed after an explosion over the Indonesian island of Batam, near Singapore.
Qantas, whose shares initially dipped on that report but later recovered, has never had a fatal accident. A mid-air explosion blew a minivan-size hole in the side of a Qantas 747-400 in 2008 which Australian air safety investigators blamed on an oxygen bottle.
There have also been no fatal incidents involving A380s since they were launched in 2005 as the greenest, quietest and biggest jetliner.
An A380 operated by Qantas burst two tyres this year when landing in Sydney, and in September 2009 a Singapore Airlines A380 was forced to turn around in mid-flight and return to Paris after one of its engines failed.
The plane involved in Thursday’s incident was built in 2008.
More than 200 orders have been placed for the A380, and 37 are in operation worldwide, according to Airbus. The plane cost $17 billion to develop and has been dogged by production delays.
“This is probably the most serious incident involving the A380 since it began flying in commercial service,” said aviation expert Tom Ballantyne, chief correspondent of Orient Aviation magazine. “There have been minor engine incidents before but nothing like this.”
Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia said the plane circled Singapore to burn fuel before making an emergency landing.
Former aircraft engineer Neil Shephard was on board.
“Four or five minutes after the flight (took off) there was a loud bang,” he told Reuters. “The pilot said there was a technical issue with the plane and then we circled around for an hour to dump the fuel. During the landing, it was a bit wobbly.”
Passengers were kept informed at all times, others who were on board said.
A Reuters reporter said the plane was surrounded on the ground by emergency vehicles but there was no sign of any smoke or fire. One of the four nacelles — structures that house the engines — was missing and there appeared to be charring around that area of the plane.
Rusdi, a witness in Batam, told Indonesia’s Metro TV: “After an explosion, the plane was still moving but smoke was trailing from one of its wings.”
Indonesian volcano Mount Merapi has erupted several times in the past week, spewing ash into the sky, but is several hundred miles from the A380’s flightpath.
Thursday’s incident came just days before Qantas was due to celebrate its 90th anniversary with a special open day in Brisbane.
Additional reporting by Michael Perry and James Grubel in Sydney, and Vivek Prakash in Singapore; Editing by Miral Fahmy, Elaine Hardcastle and Andy Callus