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When a Flight Computer Goes Rogue: “I’m in a Knife-Fight With This Airplane”

The captain of Qantas Flight 72 is speaking out to the Sydney Morning Herald more than eight years after his terrifying battle with a flight computer that “went psycho” over the Indian Ocean.

In October of 2008, dozens of passengers were injured when a Qantas Airlines Airbus A330-300 took a sudden and dramatic nosedive towards the ocean below. The flight from Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) to Perth Airport (PER) was cruising at just over 37,000 feet under fair skies when the aircraft abruptly began to pitch nose down and instantly dropped nearly 700 feet in altitude.

Unlucky passengers and crew who were not secured in their seats with safety belts were immediately thrown violently about the cabin. Even many of those employing their seatbelts were also injured by flying projectiles dislodged during the violent and unexpected acceleration.

Meanwhile, pilots on the flight deck were starting to realize that the plane’s computer system was now in control of the aircraft and the computer seemed intent on crashing into the Indian Ocean. Flight QF72 was still more than an hour and a half from its destination at this point.

“It’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Captain Kevin “Sully” Sullivan recounted to the Sydney Morning Herald this week. “‘HAL open the pod bay doors.’ ‘I’m sorry Dave I can’t let you do that.’ I’m saying ‘don’t push the airplane down’ and the computers are saying ‘I’m sorry Kev, I’m not going to let you do that.’”

To make matters worse, after briefly stabilizing, the plane’s computers executed yet another dangerous dive just moments later. Now, Captain Sullivan says he is beginning to seriously wonder if the aircraft’s computer system would allow him to reach the nearest airport to land in one piece.

Initial media reports described the midair ordeal as a case of clear air turbulence, but in breaking his silence, Sullivan describes a situation far more concerning than an incident attributed to a rare weather phenomenon.

In an exclusive interview with the Australian newspaper, Sullivan explained that a faulty sensor reported data to the Airbus’ computer indicating perplexingly that the plane was simultaneously stalled and overspeed. When the emergency autopilot corrected to protect the aircraft, the plane’s safety protocols mistakenly caused the passenger jet to dive nose-down. Because the computer was acting (albeit with incorrect data) to save the aircraft, the pilots were powerless to override the computer’s very dangerous actions.

“The hierarchy of this particular airplane is that the computer is number one and the pilot is number two,” Sullivan notes. “If they, for example, decide that you’re over-speeding and stalling then they’re going to protect you. There is no right to veto.”

The crew was eventually able to safely land the Airbus at RAAF Learmonth Airport (LEA) on the Northwest Coast of Western Australia, but Sullivan tells the newspaper that until the plane touched down he couldn’t be certain that he would not again be betrayed by his aircraft. “What is my strategy?” he remembers asking himself. “How will I stop a pitch down if it happens during landing?”

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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strickerj May 16, 2017

Wow, I hadn't heard about this incident until now. I'm not that familiar with Airbus, but isn't there a master autopilot disconnect button? Or is this system enabled independently of autopilot?


>Captain Kevin “Sully” Sullivan What this and US Airways Flight 1549 landing on the Hudson tell you is, if your captain is named "Sully" you might want to take a later flight... O/H