Air Crash Investigation recreates the mid-air emergency on flight QF72 in 2008. Picture: National Geographic
Air Crash Investigation recreates the mid-air emergency on flight QF72 in 2008. Picture: National Geographic

‘I was not in control of the plane’

IT WAS the smooth Qantas flight to Perth that was brought to the brink of catastrophe so suddenly and unexpectedly, investigators are still not certain what exactly went wrong.

Now, the captain of infamous flight QF72 has gone into detail about his terror in the cockpit when the state-of-the-art A330 made two sudden nosedives, leaving passengers and crew to fear for their lives in one of Australia's most terrifying mid-air emergencies.

According to a new episode of Air Crash Investigation on Foxtel's National Geographic channel, the passenger jet with 315 passengers and crew on board had left Singapore's Changi Airport without incident on October 7, 2008 and was cruising smoothly over the Indian Ocean, right before all hell broke loose.

'I'M NOT IN CONTROL OF THIS PLANE'

As the A330 headed down the West Australian coast towards Perth, one of its autopilot systems disconnected, forcing captain Kevin Sullivan, a former US Navy Top Gun fighter pilot, to take control.

Then, a flurry of warning messages lit up the flight computer, including simultaneous warnings the plane was in stall and overspeed at the same time - an impossibility.

 

The plane's captain Kevin Sullivan has been hailed a hero for safely landing the A330 in extreme circumstances. Picture: National Geographic
The plane's captain Kevin Sullivan has been hailed a hero for safely landing the A330 in extreme circumstances. Picture: National Geographic

Mr Sullivan and second officer Ross Hales struggled to make sense of it.

Then, as if it had a mind of its own, the jet took an almighty nose-first plunge towards the ocean.

In the back galley, flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava was heating food in an oven when he suddenly slammed into the ceiling - the same fate of everyone else on board who wasn't strapped into a seat when the plane plunged 200 metres in 20 seconds.

"All I could see was the floor disappearing away from my feet," Mr Maiava told Air Crash Investigations.

"And next minute, bang. I must have hit the ceiling because it knocked me out."

 

Flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava still lives with the physical pain, as well as the emotional pain, of the incident.
Flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava still lives with the physical pain, as well as the emotional pain, of the incident.

In the cockpit, with the aircraft rapidly descending, the G-force was intense enough that even with their three-point safety harnesses, the pilots were being lifted out of their seats.

Mr Sullivan, the captain, fought against it and pulled on a side stick to stop the descent - but nothing happened. The aircraft was unresponsive to his inputs.

"I'm thinking, OK, I'm not in control of this plane," he told the program.

"I'm confused, why is it doing this? Because it's not me doing it. It's the aircraft doing it."

The captain tried the control stick again and the plane levelled off. Everyone who had hit the ceiling crashed down to the floor, including a badly injured Mr Maiava in the galley.

 

The series of events took place as the plane was off the coast of WA, with the nearest airport at Learmonth Airport. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
The series of events took place as the plane was off the coast of WA, with the nearest airport at Learmonth Airport. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Then, as unexpectedly as the first time, the plane took another sudden nose dive, this time for 120 metres in 16 seconds.

"I remember that big fat wind roaring through the air mask," Mr Sullivan said.

"Again, my control input is locked up. Again, we have to brace ourselves against the force.

"And of course, the view of the Indian Ocean. There was a flash in my consciousness: Are you gonna wind up there today?"

Mr Sullivan managed to regain control of the aircraft but didn't know how long he'd be able to keep it.

"I've never used those words in my whole flying career, but that day, we were in trouble," he said.

 

Damage in the cabin. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Damage in the cabin. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

 

THE MAYDAY CALL

After the double nosedives, the cabin was a scene of carnage, with terrified passengers screaming, crying and praying. Many of them were injured with broken bones and lacerations - some had even been scalped when their heads hit the ceiling.

In all, one crew member and 11 passengers were seriously injured and another 107 on board suffered minor injuries.

The flight crew decided to declare mayday and prepare for an emergency landing at nearby Learmonth airport, 36km south of Exmouth.

But it wouldn't be easy - the plane was in bad shape and the flight crew wasn't sure it wouldn't take another sudden plunge. The closer to the ground they got, the less time and space they'd have to recover if it happened again.

 

The plane was just off the coast of WA, heading to Perth, when the problems started. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
The plane was just off the coast of WA, heading to Perth, when the problems started. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Using a military manoeuvre from his time in the navy, which was his best chance at recovering the aircraft if it pitched down again, a skilled Mr Sullivan successfully landed the plane at Learmonth airport.

As waiting emergency crews rushed the plane to tend to the injured, Mr Sullivan and Mr Hales examined the flight report with injured first officer Peter Lipsett, who was on a break during the nosedives, and had a broken nose.

"I looked at the two other pilots and I said, 'I think we're pretty lucky to be here'," Mr Sullivan said. "Because it was total systems failure."

 

The Qantas A330 after it landed at Learmonth, Western Australia, on October 7, 2008. Picture: AAP/Kristin Anderson
The Qantas A330 after it landed at Learmonth, Western Australia, on October 7, 2008. Picture: AAP/Kristin Anderson

A BLACK SWAN EVENT

Other than the fact the incident couldn't be easily explained, the challenge for Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators was that the A330 was one of the world's most popular and reliable aircraft, with more than 600 in service around the world.

What happened on QF72, and could it happen again?

The documentary detailed the exhaustive and often frustrating search for answers by ATSB investigators that led to numerous dead-ends.

Eventually, they concluded there was a mysterious malfunction in one of the plane's three air data units, which sent incorrect information to other aircraft systems.

 

The investigation zeroed in on the aircraft’s ADIRU 1 (one of its three air data inertial reference units). Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
The investigation zeroed in on the aircraft’s ADIRU 1 (one of its three air data inertial reference units). Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

Specifically, it was confusing altitude data with angle-of-attack data, a different but very important flight parameter associated with the angle of the plane's wing.

In simple terms, that tricked the A330's robust protection mode to kick in when it wasn't needed, overriding the input of the captain, and causing the plane to pitch down unnecessarily.

It was as if the plane was trying to fix a problem it thought it had, but didn't.

Experts are still not sure of the root cause of the malfunction in the data unit, but subsequent software changes by Airbus mean any similar error in the future won't lead to another terrifying nosedive.

 

The plane’s first pitch-down. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
The plane’s first pitch-down. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

 

The second pitch-down. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
The second pitch-down. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau

"This was a black swan event, something that had never been seen before, something that no one had ever really expected would happen," ATSB lead investigator Michael Walker told the program.

"Although we didn't actually find a full explanation, we found enough of an explanation to reduce the risk of this happening again."

Mr Sullivan said the incident revealed the fallibility of automated technology.

"The hierarchy still needs to be, pilot number one, computer number two," he said.

And as for the captain's heroic piloting skills, flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava - who still struggles with the physical and psychological injuries of the terrible flight - had only praise.

"The guy is amazing. Kevin is the reason why we're sitting here today to tell the story."

 

Ceiling panels had become damaged. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Ceiling panels had become damaged. Picture: Australian Transport Safety Bureau


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