A com­puter takes over the con­trols of a jumbo jet­liner and 315 peo­ple are fac­ing dis­as­ter

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - MATT O’SUL­LI­VAN

When a com­puter on a jumbo jet goes rogue, 315 peo­ple find them­selves fac­ing dis­as­ter.

RE­TURN­ING FROM the bath­room, Sec­ond Of f icer Ross Hales straps into the right-hand seat next to Cap­tain Kev in Sul­li­van in the Qan­tas jet’s cock­pit. “No change,” says the Amer­i­can-born Sul­li­van. He is re­fer­ring to the Air­bus A330’s au­topi­lot and al­ti­tude as it cruises at 11,300 me­tres (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 from Sin­ga­pore to Perth, Aus­tralia. Five sec­onds later, stall and over­speed warn­ings be­gin blar­ing. “­St-aaa-ll, staaa-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 the lunch ser­vice. Some pas­sen­gers stand in line for the toi­lets. An off- duty Qan­tas cap­tain and his wife, who have been on hol­i­day, join Ma­iava.

“Hey, Fuzz, where’s your wine?” they ask.

“Just help your­self – you know where it is,” says Ma­iava, 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 pm.

He pul ls back on the st ick 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 make the sit­u­a­tion worse by pitching the nose up and caus­ing a dan­ger­ous stall.

Within two sec­onds, the plane dives 200 me­tres. 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 nose­dives, the plane slowly be­gins to re­spond to Sul­li­van’s con­trol stick move­ments. As it does, he lets the plane con­tinue to de­scend be­fore gin­gerly lev­el­ling off and climb­ing back to­wards 11,300 me­tres.

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 t rapped 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 off­duty Qan­tas cap­tain’s head. He lies un­con­scious on the floor. The cap­tain’s wife – a se­nior ­Qan­tas f light 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 bot t les lit ter the cabin floor.

Sud­denly, a pas­sen­ger from an In­dian tour group rushes into the gal­ley in a panic, point­ing at an inf lated 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 11,000 me­tres above the In­dian Ocean. Sul­li­van and Hales have no idea what caused the plane to dive. The com­puter sys­tem does not tell them. Sul­li­van’s hands fly over the

“I was in a knife fight with this plane,” says Kevin Sul­li­van. “And only one per­son or one com­puter was go­ing to win”

pan­els as the pi­lots 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 120 me­tres.

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 to­wards 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.

“What the hell was that?” Hales ex­claims to Sul­li­van. “It’s the PRIM,” the cap­tain replies. A re­al­isat ion 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 im­per­illing 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 Fl ight 72 di­vert­ing, Western Aus­tralia po­lice and a small med­i­cal cen­tre 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

Fuzzy Ma­iava has en­dured eight op­er­a­tions since the in­ci­dent

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