Published on : Wednesday, May 17, 2017
AFTER NINE LONG YEARS A pilot who saved the lives of more than 300 people by averting the crash of his passenger jet has spoken up, describing how the aircraft’s computer “went psycho” plunging the plane hundreds of feet in seconds.
On that day in October 2008, Sullivan was forced to declare mayday and make an emergency landing at Learmouth Airport in Western Australia, gripped with the fear that the plane might nosedive again.
Captain Kevin Sullivan was in charge of Qantas Flight 72, from Singapore to Perth, when the Airbus A330’s auto-pilot malfunctioned twice, first dropping the aircraft 690 feet in 23 seconds, and again sending it 400 feet in 15 seconds, causing more than 100 injuries to passengers.
Flight 72, carrying 303 passengers and 12 crew, had been cruising at 37,000 feet above the Indian Ocean when one of the plane’s three flight control primary computers – which pilots know as Prims – developed a fault and warnings of both stall and over-speed began ringing around the flight deck. Moments later the A330’s nose pitched down violently, sending chaos through the cabin.
Sullivan, a former US Navy pilot, said he asked himself “Is my life going to end here today?” before managing to pull the plane level again using the control stick.
“We’re in an out-of-control aeroplane, we’re all juiced up by our own bodies because, we thought, we are in a near-death situation, and we’ve got to be rocket scientists to figure out how we can go in there and land the plane outside of any established procedures,” he said.
Sullivan says the experience, which left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, raises questions about the increased automation of flying.
“We were never given any hint during our conversion course to fly this aeroplane that this could happen,” he said. “And even, I think the manufacturer felt this could never happen. It’s not their intention to build an aeroplane that is going to go completely haywire and try and kill you.”
“Even though these planes are super-safe and they’re so easy to fly, when they fail they are presenting pilots with situations that are confusing and potentially outside their realms to recover,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “For pilots – to me – it’s leading you down the garden path to say ‘You don’t need to know how to fly anymore’. You just sit there – until things go wrong.”
Sullivan, an American who moved to Australia for what was meant to be a three-year stint but stayed after marrying an Australian, kept working for Qantas for eight years, remaining quiet on the incident, until last year when he left the airline.
It was just 50 minutes after the plane’s first nose-dive that Sullivan and his two co-pilots had the plane on the tarmac at Learmouth Airport, where they were met by emergency services.