Computer glitch suspected in Qantas jet plunge

1000ft drop injures 44; passengers suffer broken bones, concussion

Investigators from the Australian Transport and Safety Bureau (ATSB) have suggested a computer glitch may have been responsible for an incident yesterday where a Qantas Airbus fell 1000 feet, seriously injuring 14 passengers, and hospitalising a further 30.

The incident occurred on a Qantas Airbus A330-300 on flight 72 from Singapore to Perth, carrying 303 passengers and 10 crew.

The aircraft suddenly nose-dived at 37,000ft, throwing passengers, crew and lose objects around the cabin, resulting in broken bones, concussions and lacerations for some on board.

ATSB director of aviation safety investigations Julian Walshe told reporters in Canberra today that the crew had received aircraft monitoring messages relating to an irregularity with the plane's elevator control system which controls flaps on the tail of the aircraft.

“The crew made a PAN PAN emergency broadcast to air traffic control, advising that they had experienced flight control computer problems and that some people had been injured,” Walshe said, noting that the call was shortly upgraded to MAYDAY.

“It is obviously very early in the investigation and too soon to draw any conclusions as to the specific cause of this accident.

“The investigation will [provide a] detailed examination of the Flight Data and Cockpit Voice recordings, aircraft systems and maintenance history, Air Traffic Control radar and audio recordings, and weather conditions.”

ATSB investigators are researching whether a laptop triggered the malfunction, although the bureau said it is too early to confirm the cause of the incident.

Crew brought the aircraft under control and made an emergency landing at Learmonth airport in Western Australia.

An expert from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority familiar with the A330, will join a French representative from the Bureau Enquetes-Accidents to assist the ATSB investigation.

The ATSB will release a preliminary report within a month.

The ATSB has described how an ‘irregularity’ in the elevator control system hit QF 72 while it was in level flight at 37,000 feet over WA yesterday shortly before its emergency landing at Learmonth with dozens of injured passengers. In lay terms the elevators are control surfaces on the tail of the jet which are critical to stable flight.

The ATSB said today that the pilots “received electronic centralised aircraft monitoring messages relating to some irregularity with the aircraft’s elevator control system.”

The jet with 303 people on board then climbed about 300 feet above its intended flight level where the crew began following the non-normal checklist response actions.

Julian Walshe the ATSB’s director of air safety investigations said “The aircraft is then reported to have abruptly pitched nose down.”

The obvious lines of inquiry for the ATSB now include reviewing any history of faults with this particular A330, and its maintenance history, which should include routine records of parts replacements and other relevant repairs, as well the responses the aircraft made to pilot actions as they brought it under control and then landed it at Learmonth.

It is also now abundantly clear that the aircraft dived very steeply and quickly and for many thousands of feet before it returned to near level flight and landed.

This inquiry will be of the highest interest to other operators of the A330 type as well as Qantas.

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Darren Pauli

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