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Virgin Fokker 100 flew 355km to Perth despite engine flame out

written by Adam Thorn | February 4, 2021
A file image of Fokker 100s in Virgin Australia livery. (Rob Finlayson)
A file image of Fokker 100s in Virgin Australia livery. (Rob Finlayson)

A Virgin Australia Fokker 100 crew decided to continue flying 355 kilometres to their destination when one of their engines flamed out – rather than turn around and land just 41 kilometres away at Geraldton.

The ATSB suggested the decision to proceed to Perth resulted in “longer exposure to one engine inoperative flight risks” but maintained it was still a “permitted option” that was carefully considered.

The aircraft was carrying two flight crew, two cabin crew and 24 passengers on board when the incident took place on 9 July 2019.

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Virgin Australia said in response that “expanded training” would “reinforce the importance of inflight decision making and the effective management of these situations” to ensure flight crew are well placed to respond to future occurrences.

The Virgin Australia Regional Airlines-operated Fokker 100, VH-FWI, was climbing through 13,000 feet when its left Rolls-Royce Tay engine flamed out, which an ATSB investigation subsequently determined was due to the failure of the engine’s fuel flow regulator due to component wear.

After the flame-out, the flight crew elected to maintain their airspeed of 250 knots and to continue to Perth. In addition, due to a desire not to ‘strain’ the right engine, the pilot flying elected not to increase thrust from climb to maximum continuous, and/or reduce the aircraft’s speed towards the recommended single-engine climb speed of 155–170 knots.

Consequently, the crew adopted a cruise level about 6,500 feet below the maximum engine-out altitude.

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“Following the engine failure, the crew’s decision to continue to Perth, where the aircraft landed without further incident, resulted in a longer exposure to one engine inoperative flight risks, compared to a diversion to the nearest suitable airport, which in this case was Geraldton,” said ATSB acting director of transport safety, Kerri Hughes.

At the time of the engine failure, the aircraft was about 41 kilometres south‑east of Geraldton and 287 kilometres from Perth if flying directly. The aircraft actually flew a more indirect route to Perth, 355 kilometres away.

The investigation report notes that the crew probably assessed that the likelihood of a second engine failure was remote, but may not have fully contemplated the operational risks associated with continued single-engine flight at the lower altitude of 14,000 feet.

Consequently, opportunities were missed to further mitigate operational risk via repositioning the aircraft into controlled airspace, more direct tracking to Perth and the optimisation of their glide range.

“By electing not to increase thrust on the right engine or adopt the aircraft’s recommended single-engine climb speed reduced the available climb performance of the aircraft resulting in a lower cruise altitude than the maximum available,” said Hughes.

“This, coupled with the decision to continue to Perth on the original indirect track, increased the duration of flight and the time that the aircraft was outside the glide range of emergency airports and controlled airspace, in the unlikely event that the second engine failed.”

In the full report, the ATSB said the crew choose to continue to Perth because of poorer weather and more traffic in Geraldton, plus a longer runway and better emergency service support in the WA capital.

The investigation found the fuel flow regulator seized due to internal gearing wear, despite being maintained within the recommended service life limits of the Rolls-Royce Tay 650-15 engine management program.

The ATSB also identified that the failure of the fuel flow regulator resulted in engine one thrust variation for about 45 seconds prior to the engine flame-out.

That went undetected by the crew due to the effects of automation, focused attention on other cockpit tasks, and the absence of any alert prior to the engine failure.

Following this incident and a review of the global failure rate specific to the fuel flow regulator unit utilised by the Virgin Australia Fokker 100 fleet, Rolls-Royce amended the applicable component management plan revising the recommended full-life maximum overhaul interval for the fuel flow regulator down from 16,000 to 10,000 hours.

“This incident highlights that the initial indications of component failures and malfunctions may be subtle. Automation can obscure significant changes in aircraft system status, including engine health,” said Hughes. “The incident also illustrates the numerous factors to be considered when managing the initial and subsequent aspects of power loss in a complex aircraft.”

Virgin Australia said in a statement, “The safety and wellbeing of our guests and crew is our top priority, and we always exercise caution to ensure we appropriately manage the many factors involved in these situations.

“We welcome the review by Rolls-Royce and its management plan to recommend changes to the time between
overhauls of the fuel flow regulator (FFR) component, down from 16,000 to 10,000 hours.

“This, alongside expanded training that reinforces the importance of inflight decision making and the effective
management of these situations ensures our flight crew are well placed to respond to future occurrences.”

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18 Comments

  • It would be helpful to know just how adverse was the local weather at Geraldton. Certainly the runway length there is ample for an OEI landing.

  • Dave

    says:

    It’s easy for others to make ‘Monday Morning quarterback” reports after the event if they’re not present when the incident took place. To question the pilot’s competency and decisions after the fact or a relatively minor event that was well managed suggests the ATSB went ‘looking for a crime’ to justify their investigation – and obviously easily enough found one (there were probably half a dozen others if they chose to look harder and went back further in time). Perhaps the ATSB should have constructed their report more around what the pilot’s did correct and procedurally, it would likely come off a more positive learning experience of all concerned and those with a third party interest.

    • Adam Thorn

      says:

      I would argue the ATSB were very fair. They clearly questioned the decision but were at pains to insist it was permitted and was made after careful thought – something I tried to reflect in our write-up. From my experience, the ATSB always go the extra mile not to turn these into court cases. It’s also important they investigate these in order for others to learn lessons etc.

      Thanks for your comment,

      Adam

    • Gary

      says:

      Disagree, the ATSB question was 100% correct. You can almost bet that in the back of the minds of the crew the two alternative landing spots would have been discriminated at length for personal comfort reasons, least likely operational imperative reasons. Additionally, you always hear “thought processes” after the event like there were more emergency Services at the alternative destination, thereby “legitimising” the decision to take the least sensible route. When the reason for a single engine flame out is determined, only then can you apportion the tag “relatively minor event’. At the coal face in the heat of the battle, engine out get on the ground. Great fan of Virgin but this seems like a poor decision on the face of what I have read.

  • Nicholas

    says:

    Oh come on.

    Where are the obvious reasons in all these lovely words.

    No base at Geraldton, engine rectification there a much more expensive and timely job and we have to get the passengers to Perth!!!

  • Vannus

    says:

    Wonder if pilot(s) of this fiasco still have a job?
    I always believed that in that situation, one lands a stricken plane ASAP, & as safely as poss in all given circs at the time.
    They’re just damn lucky the second engine didn’t shut down. Maybe they were trying to break the record of the ‘Gimli Glider’!

    To me their decision was wrong on so many levels.

    Maybe they should read up on what QANTAS Capt Sullivan did for QF 72, with his emergency landing at Learmonth WA.
    Much can be learnt from that, & QF32 ex SIN, with QANTAS Capt Richard de Crespigny.
    They both knew how to ‘fly’ a plane 100% correctly, in horrific circumstances. Maybe both having had Air Force experience helped as well. There’s much to be said for QANTAS’ Tech training.

  • A.Hanley

    says:

    If the ATSB doesn’t agree with the crew’s decision, why don’t they recommend to CASA to take away that option from pilots and insist they land at the nearest suitable airport. Won’t happen though.
    Pilots are such easy targets for post event critiques.

  • Geoffrey McKell

    says:

    This is alarming.
    The pilot in command decided to throw caution to the wind by flying to the destination, Perth. As was stumbled upon, the fuel flow regulator clapped out yet he unwisely assumed the other one must me in good shape. Bad decision – even the makers of the equipent (RR) ammended it’s full-life maximum overhaul interval by 60%, so the starboard engine was at the mercy of fait.
    That the crew did not divert to Geraldton is reprehensibe. After all, there where 28 souls on board and that they didnt fly a direct track to Perth is also a worry.
    Regarding their failure to recognise a fuel flow error 45 seconds prior to the flameout due to automation is another safety issue unseen.
    A lucky break. Given that these errors where not compressed into a tighter timeframe could have been the difference between what we now know and what might have been.

    That Rolls Royce took such drastic action in reducing “the recommended full-life maximum overhaul interval for the fuel flow regulator down from 16,000 to 10,000 hours” brings up other questions.

    The article is a beauti – well written with many facts and timestamps.
    Geoffrey

  • Ronald Fargo

    says:

    The tone of the article from ATSB and Aus Aviation sounds quite critical of the tech crew. I’m sure they had plenty of reasons to go to Perth rather than return to Geraldton and had good reason to cruise at FL140 rather than max OEI and most likely enhanced safety margin by climbing faster than single engine best climb speed.

    Easy to criticise in hindsight without context of weather, traffic and other considerations. I’m sure the crew did a fine job.

    • Adam Thorn

      says:

      There’s a balance. At Australian Aviation, it’s not our job to ‘give anyone a kicking’, so to speak. These incidents are accidents, and the human beings involved make the best decisions they can at the time, based on what they know. However, it’s also our duty to report this and I think the way we did it was fair. Clearly, there were downsides to the decision they took, and it will prove potentially a lesson learnt for others in this situation.

      Thanks,

      Adam

      • Mal

        says:

        But Adam, that headline is deliberately written to invoke a response. It could have been less sensational. The language in the introductory paragraph is also prejudicial. “They did this ‘rather’ than something else” hints to the reader that the writer doesn’t approve. “Despite engine flameout” and “just 41km away” are other examples. State “the aircraft was 41 km from Geraldton” at the time of the incident. The flavour of the article will corral readers into a particular way of thinking. At least you didn’t say ‘learnings’.

        • Adam Thorn

          says:

          It’s about interpretation and definition, as with many of these things. I put the fact that this was a legal option, made after much consideration, in the second line, which is about as high up as I could get it. I did this as I felt it was important, to me, that those in the cockpit were given a fair hearing, so to speak. I also delved deep into the report, further down, to explain their reasoning for doing what they did.

          Headlines are just that – they are short and it’s often impossible to get all the detail in. I wrote it very straight, the key fact, as the ATSB identified, is that the aircraft flew to its destination, rather than turning around. The ATSB isn’t there to determine ‘guilt’ or not, but it’s clear they questioned this decision.

          I hope that explains my thinking.

          Adam

  • Paul

    says:

    I would like to know what the actual weather conditions were at Geraldton before properly commenting on this but if the conditions were conducive of allowing a visual approach the aircraft should have diverted rather than continuing to Perth. Was this a company/financial decision , possibly so and that is unacceptable when operating on one engine on a twin engine aircraft.

  • Shaun

    says:

    Just to let you know that the incident took place on 9 July 2019 and not 9 July 2020 as stated in article.

    • Adam Thorn

      says:

      Good spot! This was a typo in the email the ATSB sent me, but in the actual report, it’s correctly 2020. I have updated now.

      Thanks,

      Adam

  • Brian Garrett

    says:

    Your article re the Virgin flight with engine flameout.
    The article fails to discuss the fuel load that would have to be burnt off if it returned to Geraldton.
    Although staying closer to an airport the safety risks of an emergency landing were much higher than at Perth.

  • It would be helpful to know just how adverse were the weather conditions at Geraldton. Certainly the main runway is adequate to handle an OEI landing with a reduced flap setting. Nearly 8000 feet these days.

  • I’m not taking sides but, just for the record, given both their very light Pax load and also the short sector down to Perth, there would have been no need to carry out holding near Geraldton in order to burn off fuel, so as to get down below the F100’s MLW.

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