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Qantas grounds A380s planes

SINGAPORE, Nov 4 – A Qantas A380 with more than 450 people on board made a dramatic forced landing in Singapore Thursday, trailing smoke from a blackened engine, in the Airbus superjumbo\’s first mid-air emergency.

Australia\’s Qantas Airways, which prides itself as the world\’s safest airline with no fatal jet crashes in its 90-year history, said it was grounding all six of its A380s following the incident.

The double-decker plane carrying 433 passengers and 26 crew developed engine trouble just six minutes into a flight from Singapore to Sydney, and dumped fuel over Indonesia before returning to Singapore\’s Changi Airport.

There were no injuries to passengers or crew, officials said.

Metal debris including a part bearing the airline\’s red-and-white "flying kangaroo" emblem slammed into industrial and residential areas of the Indonesian city of Batam, opposite Singapore.

Witness Noor Kanwa described a "loud explosion in the air" and saw "metal shards coming down from the sky".

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said flight QF32 had experienced "a significant engine failure" to one of its four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. The British engine maker pledged to work with Qantas to identify the problem.

"We will suspend those A380 services until we are completely confident that Qantas safety requirements have been met," Joyce told reporters in Sydney.

Airbus, which had bet its future on the commercial viability of the world\’s largest passenger plane, said the Qantas incident had been "significant" but stressed the A380 was safe to fly on three engines.

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"We are not playing down the incident, but it is covered in the certification procedures," a spokesman for the French-based company said.

German passenger Ulf Waschbusch said there was a loud boom and flames on the plane\’s left wing soon after take-off.

"Something ruptured the left wing," Waschbusch, a technology company executive based in Singapore, told AFP after disembarking.

Six fire engines swarmed the A380 on landing, spraying liquid on it, according to an AFP reporter at the Singapore airport.

One of the engines on the plane\’s left wing was blackened and its rear cowling was missing.

The plane circled over Indonesian territory for nearly two hours, dumping fuel prior to the emergency landing, Waschbusch said.

"Everyone was surprisingly calm on the plane. We are not going crazy at all," he said. "The crew helped tremendously. I felt in good hands. Qantas did a great job in keeping us safe."

Another witness on the ground in Batam said he heard a "thunderous" sound, and said residents came out of their homes to observe the superjumbo circling as it used up its fuel to ensure a safer landing.

"Then three or four pieces of metal fell from the sky, each not longer than a metre (yard). They fell into a field," added the witness, 35-year-old driver Ricky.

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Qantas shares had been up 10 cents at 2.97 Australian dollars before erroneous reports that one of its jets had crashed in Indonesia sent them plunging to 2.82 dollars. The stock ended the day up two cents at 2.89 dollars.

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After 18 months of production delays notably caused by wiring problems, the A380\’s first commercial flight, operated by Singapore Airlines, was on the same Singapore-Sydney route in October 2007.

Since the launch, fuel and computer glitches have grounded several A380s and at least one Air France flight was forced to turn around and land in New York after problems with its navigation system in November 2009.

In April, a Qantas A380 damaged tyres on landing from Singapore in Sydney, showering sparks and scaring passengers.

A total of 37 A380s are now flying commercially. Apart from Qantas and Singapore Airlines, the other operators are Emirates, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa. Another 234 A380s are on order from airlines, according to Airbus.

Singapore Airlines and Air France said they had no plans to ground their own fleets.

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