The 747-400 was departing San Francisco with 212 passengers and 18 crew on board when an explosion occurred in one of the aircraft’s engines.
It was powerful enough to rip a hole through its outer shell.
“We felt and heard a bit of an explosion and flames coming out of the engine, the number four engine, which lit up the whole side of the plane,” a passenger, Darren, told ABC Radio in Melbourne.
“I could see the flames and all these sparks coming off it, and also felt the eruptions when it exploded.”
Flight attendants rushed to the front of the plane as the engine surged and sent sparks and flares stretching right to the tail of the aircraft, he said.
Justin Roberts, another passenger, said the scene was like something out of a movie.
“It’s really hard to comprehend and makes sense of what was going on but there was a lot of flame, a lot of sparks, a lot of light coming out of the engine.”
Passengers said it took the captain about five minutes to shut down the engine before he started dumping fuel to prepare for an emergency landing.
The pilot reassured the passengers as he did so.
“You must be assured that we are trained for this situation, normally we do it in a simulator of course. But we are trained for it so rest assured everything is under control,” the pilot said over the intercom.
“You could sort of see on people’s faces the concern, but there were people assuring other people everything was going to be okay. And once the captain came over the PA system and told everyone what was going on, it made everyone feel a bit better,” Roberts said.
A Qantas spokesman said San Francisco air traffic control was quickly told of the problem and the flight returned to the city and made a normal landing.
Affected passengers have been offered seats on any of three Qantas flights scheduled to depart Los Angeles today.
But passengers complained of having to wait for five hours for a shuttle bus to a motel and then returning to the airport to find no one there to help them.
“There were a lot of arguments happening and also a lot of elderly people being left to fend for themselves. So in my view it was quite appalling considering the circumstances,” Darren said.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US said Qantas will prepare a report on the incident for the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Whatever Qantas does is going to have to meet with our approval too,” an FAA spokesman said.
“The bottom line is we want to make sure and know that that aircraft is airworthy when they are saying they want to put it back on line.”
Qantas spokesman David Epstein said what is puzzling to the company is precisely why the engine failed and a probe into the accident is underway.
“A Boeing 747 aircraft is more than capable. In fact it’s designed to fly with less than its full complement of engines, and all of our pilots are designed to handle this sort of situation.”
Qantas will fly a replacement aircraft engine to the United States.