Pilots/Cockpit: Skycolor/shutterstock. Water: Nils Z/Shutterstock. Sky: Elenamiv/Shutterstock. Font: Om Yos/Shutterstock.Returning from the bathroom, Second Officer Ross Hales straps into the right-hand-side seat next to Captain Kevin Sullivan in the Qantas jet’s cockpit. “No change,” the American-born Sullivan says. He is referring to the Airbus A330-303’s autopilot and altitude as it cruises at 37,000 feet above the Indian Ocean on a blue-sky day.
Within a minute, the plane’s autopilot mysteriously disconnects. That forces Sullivan to take manual control of Qantas Flight 72, carrying 303 passengers and 12 crew members from Singapore to Perth, Australia. Five seconds later, stall and overspeed warnings begin blaring. “St-aaa-ll, st-aaa-ll,” they screech. The overspeed warnings sound like a fire alarm. Ding, ding, ding, ding. Caution messages light up the instrument panel.
“That’s not right!” Sullivan exclaims. How can the plane stall and overspeed at the same time? The aircraft is telling him it’s flying at both maximum and minimum speeds, and 30 seconds before, nothing was wrong at all.
“You’d better get Peter back,” Sullivan says. Minutes earlier, First Officer Peter Lipsett left for his break. Hales picks up the plane’s intercom to try to track him down.
In the rear galley, flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava relaxes after collecting meal trays from passengers. Window blinds are drawn in the cabin, and calm has descended following lunch service. Some passengers stand in line for the bathrooms. An off-duty Qantas captain and his wife, who have been on vacation, join Maiava.
“Hey, Fuzz, where’s your wine?” they ask.
“Just help yourself—you know where it is,” Maiava says, laughing.
Booooom. A crashing sound tears through the cabin. In a split second, Maiava, the off-duty captain, and his wife are propelled into the ceiling and knocked out.
In the cockpit, Sullivan instinctively grabs the control stick the moment he feels the plane’s nose pitch down violently. It is 12:42 p.m. He pulls back on the stick to thwart the jet’s rapid descent, bracing himself against an instrument panel shade. Nothing happens. So he lets go. If the plane suddenly returns control to him, pulling back might worsen the situation by pitching the nose up and causing a dangerous stall.
Within two seconds, the plane dives 650 feet. In a gut-wrenching moment, all that the pilots can see through the cockpit window is the blue of the Indian Ocean. Is my life going to end here today? Sullivan asks himself. His heart is thumping. Qantas Flight 72 is in dire trouble. The captain has no control over this plane.
Seconds after the A330 nose-dives, the plane slowly begins to respond to Sullivan’s control stick movements. As it does, he lets the plane continue to descend before gingerly leveling off and climbing back toward 37,000 feet.
It is too late for the more than 60 passengers and crew who were not belted into their seats and were bounced around as if they were trapped in a pinball machine. Maiava lies on the rear-galley floor after hitting the ceiling. On the way down, he hit the galley bench and was thrown against the meal-cart storage. Regaining his senses, Maiava sees blood gushing from the off-duty Qantas captain’s head. He lies unconscious on the floor. The captain’s wife—a senior Qantas flight attendant—begins to recover consciousness.
Beyond the galley curtain, two unaccompanied young sisters Maiava has been watching over scream. With fear in her eyes, the younger one reaches a hand out to Maiava. Barely conscious, he can’t do anything to comfort her. Oxygen masks dangle from the ceiling, swaying from side to side. Baggage and broken bottles litter the cabin floor.
Suddenly, a passenger from an Indian tour group rushes into the galley in a panic, pointing at an inflated life jacket around his neck. His face is turning blue.
“The guy’s choking,” Maiava shouts. The off-duty captain’s wife hands a pen to the passenger, pointing at a nozzle in the life jacket. Thrusting the pen into the nozzle, the passenger deflates his jacket and gasps for breath. Seconds later, he bows in gratitude. Maiava tells him bluntly to get back to his seat.
In the cockpit, overspeed and stall warnings keep ringing in the pilots’ ears even as the plane recovers to 37,000 feet above the Indian Ocean. Sullivan and Hales have no idea what caused the plane to dive. The computer system does not tell them. Sullivan hand-flies as they begin responding to fault and warning messages. One of the aircraft’s three primary flight-control computers—which pilots refer to as PRIMs—is faulty. They begin to reset it by flicking the on-off switch.
Then, without warning, the plane dives again. Sullivan pulls back on his control stick and, as he did in the first pitch down, lets go. It takes several seconds for the plane to respond to the commands. In little more than 15 seconds, the Qantas jet falls 400 feet.
In the rear galley, Maiava senses the aircraft is about to plunge again the moment he hears a roar. In absolute fear, he locks eyes with the wife of the off-duty Qantas captain. The second nosedive—less than three minutes after the first—propels them toward the ceiling again. They avoid hitting it by hanging on to a handrail. Lying on the floor seconds later, Maiava prays death will come quickly and without pain.
Chris Skelton/Stuff Limited
“What the hell was that?” Hales exclaims to Sullivan.
“It’s the PRIM,” the captain replies.
A realization of their predicament has dawned on Sullivan. The flight-control computers—the brains of the plane—are supposed to keep the plane within an “operating envelope”: maximum altitude, maximum and minimum g-force, speed, and so on. Yet against the pilots’ will, the computers are making commands that are imperiling all on board.
In the rear galley, the wife of the off-duty Qantas captain helps her husband and Maiava as best she can. Maiava is eager to get seated. “We have to move. We have to get to our seats,” he says. Together they shuffle to nearby jump seats.
Minutes later, they hear an announcement over the PA from the captain. Sullivan tells passengers he expects to land within 15 minutes at a remote airport in the Western Australia town of Learmonth, where emergency services will be waiting.
With Qantas Flight 72 diverting, Western Australia police and a small medical center kick into gear. Because of the airfield’s remoteness, emergency services need at least 30 minutes to prepare. The services in the area are basic: a fire truck and two ambulances.
Yet Sullivan still does not know whether they can land. The computer system is not telling them what data it is sampling and what it is doing. Thoughts race through the captain’s mind: What is my strategy? How will I stop a pitch down if it happens during landing?
Circling Learmonth, the pilots run through a checklist. The plane’s two engines are functioning. But the pilots do not know whether the landing gear can be lowered or the wing flaps extended for landing. Even if they can extend the flaps, they still have no idea how the plane will react. As much as they can, the pilots try to assert control over the A330. They punch “Learmonth Airport” into the computer used for navigation. The computer shows an error. It means they will have to conduct a visual approach. The precariousness of the situation is laid bare in a lengthy summary of error messages on their screens. They include the loss of automatic braking and spoilers to prevent lift once the plane is on the runway.
Sullivan plans to rely on a strategy he practiced in fighter jets. Born in San Diego, he became a Navy pilot when he was 24. Within two years, he was flying F-14 jets from the USS America during the Iran hostage crisis. In 1982, he was selected for Top Gun, the Navy’s fighter weapon school made famous by the film of the same name. In 1983, he became one of the first U.S. Navy exchange pilots with the Royal Australian Air Force. His stay in Australia was meant to last three years. But after marrying an Australian and having a daughter, he joined Qantas.
Sullivan tries to use all that experience to bring Qantas Flight 72 down safely. Flying at 10,000 feet above the Learmonth airfield, he intends to reduce power and descend into a spiral before lining up the runway and flying in fast in the hope of preventing another dive. Minutes later, Sullivan lowers the A330’s nose and reduces the power to idle as he begins a final approach. First Officer Peter Lipsett reminds him that the speed is greater than it should be. “Noted,” Sullivan replies tersely.
Seventy minutes after the first dive, the wheels of the A330 scrape the runway at Learmonth. Passengers clap wildly as it glides along the tarmac. As the plane grinds to a halt, Sullivan turns to his pilots. “So a little excitement in an otherwise dull day,” he quips, imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies. (Find out what happened when one plane’s engine failed over the busiest highway in America.)
The plane’s cabin looks like a scene from a disaster movie. EMTs from a nearby town nurse the passengers; compartment doors have been ripped from hinges; smashed bottles, glasses, and baggage are strewed on the floor. “It just looked like the Incredible Hulk had gone through there in a rage and ripped the place apart,” Sullivan recalled later.
Qantas Flight 72’s brush with disaster happened almost ten years ago, on October 7, 2008. The day still haunts Sullivan and Maiava. Sullivan took eight months off work. When he returned, he was hyperalert and concerned about another potential loss of control. He continued to fly, but he no longer enjoyed the job that had once defined him. He retired three years ago, after three decades at Qantas.
Plane: Jeeranpan Jankaew/Shutterstock Sky: Elenamiv/ShutterstockLike Sullivan, Maiava still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has not had paid work since the incident and suffers chronic physical and psychological injuries. “I get spasms continuously, every day, nonstop. Those are what trigger the flashbacks, the memories, the nightmares—it just hasn’t gone away,” he says.
Until they printed out the maintenance log after landing, the pilots did not know that the A330 had sustained ten simultaneous failures at the same moment. Instead of alerting them to the failures, the computer system responded on its own to the faults, and Sullivan could not override it. “There was one air-data computer that went rogue,” he says. “It didn’t identify itself to say, ‘I’m going psycho.’ As a human, I should have a right to veto [the computer’s commands].”
The events of October 7, 2008, are not merely about how three airline pilots found themselves fighting to save a passenger plane from itself. It serves as a cautionary tale as society accelerates toward driverless cars, trucks, and trains.
In the air, complex computer systems already oversee a new generation of planes, reducing the control of pilots who spend long periods of flights keeping watch. The technology has helped make the world’s ever-more-crowded skies safer. Yet, paradoxically, it is technology that threatened the lives of those on Qantas Flight 72.
“Even though these planes are super safe and so easy to fly, when they fail, they are presenting pilots with situations that are confusing and potentially outside their realms to recover,” Sullivan says. “To me, it’s a caution sign on the highway of automation to say, ‘Hey, can you completely remove the human input?’”
Next, check out the 19 scariest moments pilots have ever experienced on the job.