SYDNEY - An electrical fault sent smoke into the cockpit of a Qantas Boeing 747 and forced pilots to turn back Monday in the latest in a string of problems for the airline since an engine explosion on a superjumbo prompted a global safety scare.
The latest incident was unrelated to the superjumbo drama, but it was the third time Qantas jetliners have aborted flights because of faults since the Nov. 4 explosion on the Airbus A380, which raised concerns about the world's largest passenger plane.
The Airbus incident has prompted extra attention on Qantas, which prides itself on its safety record. Qantas says the three faults since Nov. 4 were far less serious than problems with the A380 and that the turnarounds were precautionary.
The airline said a Boeing 747 carrying 221 passengers and crew was an hour into a flight from Sydney for Buenos Aires, Argentina, when smoke started coming from an instrument panel in the cockpit. Pilots donned oxygen masks and turned the plane around, dumping fuel over the Pacific Ocean before making a "priority landing" in Sydney.
"This is absolutely in line with procedure to ensure that they can safely arrive, which they did," Qantas spokeswoman Olivia Wirth told reporters.
Passengers said the pilot informed them that there had been a problem with an instrument panel in the cockpit and the plane would return to Sydney.
"We couldn't smell or hear anything," passenger Samantha Gash told Nine Network television. "All we noticed, because we were next to the wing, is when the fuel was let out. Everyone was very quiet and calm. It was probably when we landed back in Sydney and there were four or five fire engine trucks behind us that people began to start to feel a bit uneasy."
Television footage showed fire trucks tailing the plane as it taxied to the terminal, though they were not put to use. Qantas said the passengers would be put on other flights, and repairing the plane was not expected to take long.
Wirth said the problem was a "minor electrical fault" that caused a "minimal" amount of smoke in the cockpit. No smoke entered the passenger cabin.
On Friday, a Qantas Boeing 767 turned back on a domestic flight in Australia after pilots detected abnormal vibrations in one of its two General Electric engines. A week earlier, a Sydney-bound Qantas Boeing 747 landed safely in Singapore after an engine caught fire minutes after takeoff.
Both 747 planes were fitted with Rolls-Royce RB211 engines.
The A380 scare is being blamed on a fault in the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine. Leaking oil caught fire in one of the Qantas A380`s four massive engines, heating metal parts and causing the motor's disintegration over Indonesia before the jetliner returned safely to Singapore. Experts say chunks of flying metal damaged vital systems in the wing of the Sydney-bound plane, causing the pilots to lose control of the second engine and half of the brake flaps on the damaged wing in a situation far more serious than originally portrayed by the airline.
Qantas grounded its six A380s within hours and said four days later that checks had revealed suspicious oil leaks in three engines on three different grounded A380s. Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, which both use A380s with Trent 900 engines, have conducted checks on their superjumbos and all but one have returned to service, the airlines say.
Qantas' six superjumbos - the backbone of its longest and most lucrative international routes between Australia and Los Angeles, Singapore and London - remain grounded despite what experts say is financial pressure to fly them again.
"We are taking our normal and extremely conservative approach to safety and will not operate our A380 fleet until we are completely confident that it is safe to do so," Simon Rushton, a Qantas spokesman, said Monday.
Qantas was still hopeful of returning the A380s to service "in days, not weeks," Rushton said.
Britain's Rolls-Royce Group PLC, the world's second-largest engine maker, said Friday that it would be replacing an unspecified module, or collection of linked parts, on the Trent 900. Airbus said Rolls-Royce would also be equipping the engines with software to shut them down before an oil leak could cause an engine to disintegrate.
Rushton said three engines had been removed from Qantas A380s as part of a detailed inspection program ordered by Europe's air safety regulator and recommendations by Rolls-Royce. He declined to comment on an unsourced newspaper report that Rolls-Royce had advised Qantas that seven more engines may have to be removed, something that would cause longer delays and potential revenue losses.
Singapore Airlines, which grounded three of its 11 A380s after checks found oil leaks in three Trent 900s, said Monday that two were back in service after engine changes and that work was continuing on the third.