Qantas in midair emergency as pilots grapple with two cockpit fires

PASSENGERS on a Qantas flight from the Philippines to Sydney yesterday were left terrified after pilots had to put out an electrical fire in the cockpit and the plane was forced to land in Cairns.

Small flames on the flight deck of the Airbus A330-200 were initially put out by the automatic safety systems, but within minutes the fire began again, forcing the three pilots, who were wearing oxygen masks, to use an extinguisher.

Qantas said the blaze was caused by an electrical problem in the system that heats the windscreen, the same fault that forced a Jetstar A330-200 en route from Japan to Australia to land on the Pacific island of Guam in 2009.

One of the 147 passengers on board the flight told the Fairfax Media the incident had been ''truly scary''.

The 56-year-old said: ''There was a burning smell in the cabin that was very strong, and then the captain came over the loudspeaker and explained an electrical problem meant there was a serious risk of fire. Later he explained flames had come back for a second time and they'd had to use a fire extinguisher in the cockpit.

Whenever you hear a pilot talk about a fire on a plane it's truly scary.

''Whenever you hear a pilot talk about a fire on a plane it's truly scary. Clearly the incident could have been catastrophic.''

But the passenger also praised the captain for his calmness during the situation: ''He was very composed over the loudspeaker and when the plane landed he took the time to walk back and talk to the passengers.''

The fire began at 3.35am Sydney time. The plane arrived in Cairns 50 minutes later.

A Qantas pilot told the Fairfax Media last night that such faults were potentially ''very serious''.

''With that electrical malfunction a circuit-breaker system should trip out and the problem go away. That the flames came back means there was another fault,'' he said. ''Any time pilots have to use extinguishers in such a confined area as the cockpit isn't a good situation. They would have had to land the plane at the nearest suitable airport. It sounds like it was potentially a very serious situation.''

A Qantas spokesman praised the pilots and said the airline had notified the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. ''The pilots did a fantastic job to bring the situation under control and calmly redirected the plane to Cairns Airport for a standard, but unscheduled, landing.''