Engine Cowls: Not Always In It For The Long-Haul

What is it with engine fan cowls these days? It seems to be a case of “easy come, easy go” – as easyJet might say after the latest mid-air incident.

Two days ago (August 12, 2013), an easyJet A320 departing from Milan Malpensa for Lisbon made a swift about-turn shortly after take-off, following what the airline coyly described as a “technical issue” with one of its engines. Passenger reports and photographs taken on landing confirmed that the cowl on the left engine had ripped off.

After circling for 20 minutes, the aircraft landed safely using both engines, with no injuries to the 174 passengers and six crew onboard. EasyJet has said it is now investigating exactly what happened on EZY2715.

Without wishing to prejudice proceedings, though, one suspects that the investigators will not need brains of Einstein-like proportions to work out what went wrong.

A mere three months ago (May 24, 2013), an A320-family aircraft operated by BA also found itself at the mercy of an engine cowl with separatist ideas, leading to an emergency landing at London Heathrow. BA’s A319 touched down with its right engine on fire, although here too everyone onboard escaped to fly again another day (post-traumatic stress disorder notwithstanding).

The subsequent Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) report listed a shocking amount of damage to the A319’s airframe and systems, noting that the event “has shown that the consequences of fan cowl door detachment are unpredictable and can present a greater risk to flight safety than previously experienced”. The AAIB concluded that the cowls had been left unlatched during overnight maintenance.

While the consequences may be unpredictable, perhaps the same cannot be said for the occurrence of such incidents. The AAIB noted that previous separation incidents have been known on A320-family aircraft. Indeed, while referencing an Airbus Safety First article on the subject, the AAIB said there had been 32 incidents of fan cowl door detachments by July 2012 – 80 per cent of which occurred during take-off.

In describing the details of BA’s A319, the AAIB made the key point that the aircraft’s nacelle has a low ground clearance which “usually requires maintenance personnel to lie on the ground to access the latches”; the latches are “difficult to see unless crouched down so that the bottom of the engine is clearly visible”.

Prior to the most recent incident, Airbus had already taken to reminding operators to adhere strictly to the aircraft maintenance manual (AMM) – but unfortunately it looks as if not everyone has been listening.

It’s surely only a matter of time before the next cowl “comes and goes”.

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