External Video Camera Helps Qantas Pilots Assess Airbus A380 Damage

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released their preliminary report on the Qantas Airbus A380 engine failure that occurred on November 4, 2010, and it includes some interesting findings. The report details the extensive damage caused by the uncontained engine failure of the Rolls-Royce Trent engine and the remarkable effort of the aircrew to land the plane safely. (An uncontained engine failure is when a major part of the turbofan engine, such as a compressor disc, fails and pieces exit the engine compartment at high velocity.) In this case, a turbine disc failed and the resulting shrapnel damaged the skin, hydraulic and fuel systems and primary structure in the left wing of the A380, the world’s largest commercial airliner. At the ATSB web site you can download the report which includes amazing pictures of the damage.

The photo I found most interesting is on page 12 that shows the damage to the left wing, especially the left wing spar. A wing spar is one of the major structural components of an aircraft, and if a spar fails, it can lead to catastrophic failure of the airframe. In this case, it looks like a good chunk of the forward spar near the failed engine is missing. Fortunately modern airliners are structurally designed with large margins of safety and multiple load paths so that damage in one area doesn’t lead to a cascading failure in a nearby area. Still though, this Qantas A-380 is going to require significant work to repair the left wing, including possible replacement of a portion, or all, of the forward spar.

I won’t go into detail about the A380 crew effort to save the aircraft, as the ATSB report provides a good summary. But what I did find interesting in the report (page 5) is the mention of externally mounted video camera on the tail of the A380. Apparently the A380 has a video camera facing forward on the vertical tail that provides a live video feed to the in-flight entertainment system. One of the pilots went back into the cabin after the engine failure to see if he could assess where the damage occurred when he was told by a passenger that the external video feed showed a fluid leaking from the left wing. (What is not mentioned in the report is whether this live video is also available in the cockpit.) This information helped him determine the location of the aircraft damage. As far as I know, this would be the first instance of an aircraft-mounted video camera being used to assess damage to a commercial airliner in-flight.

With the evolution of smaller and lighter digital video cameras over the last 10 years, there have been more discussions on the merits of mounting these cameras at strategic locations on the outside of large aircraft to aid the aircrew in assessing aircraft damage. I know that American Airlines at one time offered a live video of takeoff and landing to the passengers in the cabin, but I believe the camera was mounted inside the cockpit and only gave a view looking straight out the front of the aircraft. The small size, high quality and relatively low cost of digital video cameras today could allow for several to be located on the outside of the aircraft (tail, wingtips, belly, etc.), providing views of the entire exterior of the aircraft. It would be relatively easy to have a display in the cockpit that showed individual or multiple views from all the cameras. Also, with cheap, high-capacity digital storage available today, it should be simple to record the video feeds from any camera to aid in accident investigations. It appears that the main reason Airbus mounted the camera on the tail of the giant A380 was for passenger entertainment. However, after seeing how it helped the aircrew assess the extent of the damage to their aircraft in this mishap, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the ATSB, or even the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S., recommend that video cameras providing coverage of the outside of an aircraft be implemented on all new commercial aircraft.