How Qantas plane turned against pilot
IT was the Qantas flight from Singapore to Perth that was brought to the brink of catastrophe.
An incident so sudden and unexpected, it's been deemed the most terrifying emergency in Australian flight history.
On October 7, 2008, QF72 was cruising smoothly over the Indian Ocean right before all hell broke loose.
As the A330 headed down the West Australian coast towards Perth, one of its autopilot systems disconnected, forcing then-captain Kevin Sullivan, a former US Navy fighter pilot, to take control.
Within moments, a flurry of warning messages lit up the flight computer, including simultaneous warnings the plane was in stall and overspeed at the same time - an impossibility.
While Mr Sullivan, who has since retired, and second officer Ross Hales struggled to make sense of what was happening to the aircraft, the jet started to plunge nose first towards the ocean within seconds.
Mr Sullivan compares the incident to a scene out of the movie 2001 Space Odyssey when the HAL 9000 computer takes control.
"I'm pulling back on the stick and I'm saying 'Hey HAL … stop moving the nose' and it's like 'I'm sorry Kev. I can't let you do that," he told Sunday Night.
As the Airbus spiralled out of control, Mr Sullivan had to draw on all the skills he had learned as a Top Gun fighter pilot in the US Navy to bring the plane back from certain disaster and save the 315 passengers and crew on board.
Plunging 200m in 20 seconds, Mr Sullivan fought against the dive and pulled on a side stick to stop the descent - but nothing happened. The aircraft was unresponsive to his inputs.
His previous training kicks in and he decides to do something completely counter-intuitive, instead of pulling back on the control stick, he lets it go.
"I have a choice to make," he said. "Do I hold on to it or do I release it? And my military training … is to release."
It works and the plane stops its frightening descent but after another two minutes it plunges again. This time, 120 metres in 16 seconds.
As Mr Sullivan and Mr Hales gain control in the cockpit, the double death dive had caused havoc inside the cabin.
Terrified passengers were screaming, crying and praying. Many of them were injured with broken bones and lacerations.
Bruce Southcott, who appeared on Channel 7's Sunday Night, said the descent had happened so suddenly it felt like "the hand of God just pushed the aircraft down".
His wife Caroline Southcott was returning to her seat from the toilet when she remembers getting hit on the head with the roof of the plane.
"I just went 'bang'. And before I could think, 'bang' again and then a third bang, and my head went through the cabin ceiling. After the third time that it hit me on the head, I pretty much was knocked out," she said.
Ms Southcott was among the most injured. Her back was broken and her foot was hanging from her leg by a piece of skin.
"I'm lucky I can walk and I'm lucky to be here alive," she said.
Flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava was heating food in an oven when he was slammed into the ceiling during the rapid descent.
"I just, sort of, looked down and … the plane was disappearing from my feet," he said.
His injuries were extensive, and still haunt his body today. Mr Maiava says his injuries have changed his life and as a result, is unable to work or drive a car.
Mr Maiava now has two titanium knees and seven damaged discs in his spine.
For the chronic pain, anxiety, depression and sleep disturbance, he takes around 22 pills a day.
He continues to have nightmares and flashbacks to this day.
"I keep hitting the wall, just to ground myself," he said.
After getting a medical discharge from Qantas, Mr Maiava said the pain and nightmares got so bad he tried to take his own life.
"I ended up in ICU in a coma for a week. I couldn't take it any longer, the pain was unbearable," he said.
"I thought to myself 'what's happening'? It was like I had been discarded."
While some of the passengers got six-figure payouts, Mr Maiava only got offered $33,000 because he was an employee. He rejected the offer on legal advice and was left with nothing.
'THIS GUY SAVED MY LIFE'
Thanks to his prior military training, Mr Sullivan was able to bring the plane to land in nearby Learmonth airport, 36km south of Exmouth.
But the trauma didn't end there. In all, one crew member and 11 passengers were seriously injured and another 107 on board suffered minor injuries.
Mr Sullivan said after the plane landed, he took a walk that changed his life and broke his heart.
"It was quite confronting, the interior of the cabin was almost destroyed," he said.
"The parents were holding their children, trying to console them as I walked past and the look of 'look what you did to my kid' … will never leave.
"I'm the head honcho, I'm the one who has to show leadership and strength but it's pretty hard when emotional chunks are being ripped off you … as you move through the aeroplane."
But it's clear that the passengers and crew on board the plane that day are grateful to Mr Sullivan and believe he is a hero.
"This guy saved my life," Mr Maiava said of Captain Sullivan. "I'm here in the flesh because of that man."
Mr Maiava has now started a change.org petition calling on Qantas to publicly acknowledge and recognise Captain Sullivan, First Officer Peter Lipsett and Second Officer Ross Hales for their heroic actions, through a Qantas Chairman's Diamond Award.
He would also like Prime Minister Scott Morrison to honour them with Australia's highest civilian bravery award, the Cross of Valour.
In the days following the landing, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau start their investigation.
On October 14, 2008, the ATSB team gave their initial findings at a media conference in Canberra.
The investigation team concluded there was a mysterious malfunction in one of the plane's three air data units, which sent incorrect information to other aircraft systems.
Specifically, it was confusing altitude data with angle-of-attack data, a different but very important flight parameter associated with the angle of the plane's wing.
In simple terms, that tricked the A330's robust protection mode to kick in when it wasn't needed, overriding the input of the captain, and causing the plane to pitch down unnecessarily.
It was as if the plane was trying to fix a problem it thought it had, but didn't.
Retired captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a plane in America's Hudson River after both engines were disabled by a bird strike, believes that replacing pilot skills with increase automation is a fatal mistake.
"In the cockpits, we must always make sure that the humans are in complete control of the aircraft and its flight path," he said.
In a statement to news.com.au, Qantas acknowledged changes were made and implemented following the incident, and now use what happened on board that journey as training for future pilots.
"Qantas has always recognised the exceptional job the crew of QF72 did in managing a very difficult situation," the spokesperson said.
"Following the incident, Airbus and the Northrop Grumman made changes to the components identified as a result of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation.
"The A330 has proven to be a very reliable part of not only Qantas' but the global aviation fleet. Qantas uses elements of the QF72 incident as part of its pilot and emergency procedure training."
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope, there are people who are ready to listen. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or visit lifeline.org.au.
- with Lauren McMah