FLIGHT 72 IS IN TROUBLE!
A computer takes over the controls of a jumbo jetliner and 315 people are facing disaster
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