The captain of Qantas Flight 72 has opened up for the first time about the day the automation of a plane he was in charge of ‘went psycho’ and repeatedly nose-dived towards the Indian Ocean.
More than 100 people were injured when the pilots of the flight, carrying 303 passengers and 12 crew members from Singapore to Perth, lost control of the aircraft on October 7, 2008.
The Airbus A330 had been cruising at 37,000 feet when the autopilot disengaged automatically.
It nosedived twice before pilot Kevin Sullivan declared a mayday and made an emergency landing at Learmonth Airport near Exmouth, Western Australia, around 50 minutes after the first descent.
Now, eight years later, Mr Sullivan has broken his silence on the incident that changed his life and left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kevin Sullivan, the captain of a Qantas A330 which twice nosedived towards the Indian Ocean in 2008, has opened up about the incident for the first time
‘It’s the worst thing that can happen when you are in an aeroplane – when you are not in control,’ he told Good Weekend.
‘And you have a choice. You can either succumb to that or you fight it. I was fighting that outcome and I have been ever since.’
Mr Sullivan is a former US Navy pilot who later joined the famous Top Gun school. He was the first US Navy exchange pilot to join the RAAF in 1983.
He only intended to be in Australia for three years, but after marrying an Australian woman and having a daughter, he decided to stay permanently and became a Qantas pilot.
He was 53 when what he described as a ‘computer crash’ would change the way he viewed the job he loved.
Mr Sullivan was forced to take manual control of the plane when he felt it plunge for the first time at 12.42pm WA time. It went 150 feet down in two seconds.
The Airbus A330 sits on the ground as emergency crews attend to it after an emergency landing in Learmonth, Western Australia
The flight, QF72 from Singapore to Perth, nosedived after a software error. Above, the damage inside the cabin
He remembers wondering if his life was going to end.
Seconds later, he finally felt responses to his control-stick movements and he is able to bring the aeroplane back to 37,000 feet.
But then, the plane dove again – 400 feet in just over 15 seconds.
He and the pilots realise that one of the three flight control primary computers (PRIMs) is faulty.
He was concerned about how he would safely manage an emergency landing, but knew that continuing on to Perth could be even more devastating for the injured.
Mr Sullivan declares a mayday and puts ‘Learmonth Airport’ into the computer for navigation – which shows an error.
More than 100 passengers and crew members were injured in the incident when the were thrown out of their seats when the plane suddenly nosedived
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found inaccurate data on measures, including airspeed and angle of attack, to the plane’s computers
At this point, he says he became enraged and started ‘cursing like a drunken sailor.’
He said he lowered the jet’s nose and powered to idle as he began the final approach without all the necessary instruments – but mercifully landed the plane without another nosedive.
His passengers and crew, including 115 of whom had sustained non-fatal injuries, cheered and clapped when it touched down without further incident.
At least 20 passengers and crew aboard the flight were seriously injured – some with spinal injuries and others with broken bones and lacerations.
And when he was finally able to enter the cabin, Mr Sullivan described the scene as looking like ‘the Incredible Hulk had gone through there in a rage and ripped the place apart.’
Three years after the accident, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found inaccurate data on measures, including airspeed and angle of attack, sent to the plane’s computers.
At least 20 passengers and crew aboard the flight were seriously injured – some with spinal injuries and others with broken bones and lacerations
One of the PRIMs commanded the plane to dive, but investigators could not pinpoint exactly what prompted the incorrect data.
For Mr Sullivan, the incident had life-changing consequences.
He took eight months off, but when he returned to work, he was hyper-alert and worried about losing control.
After three decades at Qantas, he decided to leave last year.
But he still worries about the greater control computers have over flying.
He said that pilots were never given any indication in training that a computer could ‘go completely haywire and try and kill you.’