By SCOTT MacLEOD
An Air New Zealand jumbo jet forced to land in London after an engine failed not only lost a flap last month but also suffered major engine trouble last year.
The Los Angeles-bound Boeing 747-400 which flew back to Heathrow Airport 90 minutes after takeoff yesterday was the same plane that lost 2m of wing flap while taking off from Auckland Airport on August 30.
The Herald yesterday learned of an incident last year in which the same jet was forced to land in Fiji with engine trouble.
Air NZ defends its safety record, saying its engine shutdown rate is six times better than the world rate for Rolls-Royce engines.
The aircraft concerned is the oldest 747-400 in the fleet, serial number ZK-NBS. Air NZ bought it new in 1989, with an expected life of 25 years.
The airline yesterday moved to ease public concerns over a string of problems this year that are marring its much-praised safety record.
The problems include the engine failure, the lost flap, and the loss of a wing panel from a different aircraft on August 24.
In the latest incident, the Boeing left London at 2.30am yesterday (NZ time) for Los Angeles with 358 passengers. It was nearing its cruising height of around 9000m when one of its four Rolls-Royce engines heated up and gave off a series of bangs that were heard inside the cabin.
The pilots shut down the engine, turned back and dumped fuel to lighten the jet before landing at 4.30am. Pieces of metal were found splattered through the engine's tailpipe.
Air NZ's managing director, Ralph Norris, admitted that in the "current climate" the incident was of public concern.
However, he stressed that there was no danger to anyone on board and said the aircraft was built to fly and land on three engines. He believed there was no problem with Air NZ's engineering systems.
"Unfortunately, as in the old adage, bad things come in threes."
The worldwide rate for Rolls-Royce engine shutdowns is once every 100,000 flying hours. Air NZ's senior vice-president operations and technical, Craig Sinclair, said the airline's last shutdown had been 637,000 flying hours earlier, in January 1996.
However, the Herald learned of a Sydney-to-Los Angeles flight on July 28 last year in which yesterday's Boeing was forced to land in Fiji with engine trouble.
On board was Sydney management consultant Alastair Bor, who said yesterday that a flight attendant woke him eight hours into the flight and told him the aircraft had to divert to Auckland because of engine trouble. Two hours later, the jet turned again and diverted from Auckland to Fiji.
"I definitely remember being told that the engine was shut down as a precaution," Mr Bor said.
Air NZ spokesman David Beatson confirmed that there was a problem with an oil leak in the inner starboard engine on that flight. However, "the engine was not shut down - it was kept running at idling speed until the aircraft landed".
Mr Beatson said the engine was replaced and was not the one that failed yesterday. That engine was an RB211-524G, worth $8 million.
Christchurch aviation writer Les Bloxham believed the safety scares would hurt Air NZ's push to regain public confidence.
Nervous fliers would be jittery at the problems, and business people needing to keep appointments would be wary of an airline that had to abort its flights.
Bloxham said the engine failure might have been caused by fuel pump problems that have forced airlines worldwide to check their wiring.
But Air NZ said there was probably no link between the engine failure and fuel pumps.
The Boeing was to leave Heathrow for Los Angeles at 10am today - an 18-hour delay for the 270 passengers still in London. Eighty-eight left on other flights.
Mr Norris said another aircraft had been sent from New Zealand to Los Angeles to pick up 200 passengers who had been waiting there for a connection.
The failed engine will be flown to New Zealand and dismantled - a process likely to take six weeks.
Air NZ, Rolls-Royce and the Civil Aviation Authority are investigating.
- additional reporting by Cathy Aronson
By SCOTT MacLEOD