Qantas flight 72 has made a safe emergency landing at Learmonth Airfield, near Exmouth on Western Australia’s North West Cape. First Officer Peter Lipsett returns to the cockpit from his inspection of the cabin, looking visibly affected by what he’s just witnessed. He is distracted and deep in thought as he takes his seat.
I look at Pete. “Bad?”
He nods and slumps back into his seat. His face is flushed and his injured nose is showing swelling.
“Keep an ear to the radios, Pete.”
I’ve been waiting for him to return. It’s now my time to “walk the walk”.
The scope of my next course of action isn’t lost on me. I’m still the captain, and there are no company representatives present to relieve me of that responsibility.
As the captain, QF72 is my watch. I will remain on duty until relieved – whenever that will be. Leaving the flight deck, I come across a group of medical responders who’ve boarded the plane. “How’s it going?” I ask.
There’s blood on the walls, and on the faces and clothes of the injured.
I know they’re overwhelmed by the number of injured passengers and crew; it’s etched on their faces. They tell me they’re progressing towards the rear of the aircraft and treating the more badly injured who had been propelled into the cabin’s ceiling by the plane pitching down, but they’ve run out of neck braces.
“How many did you bring?”
“Twenty-six – our entire stock at the medical centre.”
“Okay. Are you able to source more? Can we assist through our company? Will you be looking to disembark those who are able to walk soon?” They’re working on it, they say, and I leave them to continue with their duties.
I’ve decided that my first public address to the cabin won’t be made from the cockpit. My passengers and crew will be looking to me for leadership and compassion, so they need to see me as I talk.
From the entrance to the cabin, I can see the many seat rows and people standing in the aisles. It’s my first look at the destruction caused by the pitch-downs. How can I explain to my passengers that the computers controlling the plane went berserk and in their confusion slammed the aircraft’s nose down? I pull the cord on the communication handset to its maximum length and start my announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain.” I hold up my hand so all can see me in the cabin, even those still seated.
Heads jut out from every seat row as far back as I can see. “Welcome to Learmonth.”
This is met with cheers and applause from everyone who is able to celebrate. “We are safe now, and we are working to get you off the plane as soon as we can. We’re communicating with our company, and they’re working on a rescue plan to fly us out of here and down to Perth. I thank you for your patience and understanding. Please remain near your seats as the medical team assists those who are injured. I will be making my way through the cabin now. Thank you for your attention.”
Stowing the handset, I start a walk that will change my life. The cabin looks like the aftermath of two opposing armies engaged in hand-to-hand combat on the Western Front. There’s blood on the walls, and on the faces and clothes of the injured. There are hideous star-shaped holes in the ceiling that look like the Incredible Hulk punched them. They hold the remnants of the hair and bloodied scalps of those whose heads have punctured the aviation-grade plastic. The resulting wounds could easily have been made with a large serrated knife, raked along the victims’ scalps.
Bloodied bandages and pillows are strewn in the seat rows and aisles, mixed with the debris from broken luggage lockers and ceiling panels. Can you actually see a person’s heart as it breaks? Parts of my psyche are being brutally ripped out of me as I move through the war zone that was once the cabin of an A330. I try to remain strong. But as I speak with my passengers and my courageous crew, seeing their injuries, feeling their grief, my heart is cracking. Moving down the aisle, I’m asked the same question by my bewildered and bruised passengers: “What happened?” What can I say to them? I answer sincerely that I don’t know exactly what happened but that I tried to stop it. It’s a bad state of affairs when the captain of his aircraft doesn’t know the reasons for its violent behaviour.
We have many young children on board, some secured in bassinets on the bulkheads and others on their parents’ laps. I’m seeing them now as I move into the economy section. The parents are holding their children and trying to console their pain and tears. All of them have been injured in some way; most likely they were playing on their parents’ laps after finishing lunch. Contusions are developing on some, while others are wearing bloodstained bandages. My heart is dissolving; as a parent, I sympathise with those who’ve helplessly witnessed their children being injured. Their accusing, silent glares burn into me like lasers, communicating the unsaid message: “Look what you did to my child.” I can only offer sympathy and support as I continue my torturous walk towards the rear of the cabin. My best poker face, which I wore when I entered the front of the cabin, has completely dissolved by now. But it isn’t until I enter the rear galley that my heart receives a death blow.
The floor is littered with broken shards from the economy-class plastic cups, as if sprinkled with multi-coloured icicles. Beside them lies flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava, legs immobilised and splinted. I kneel next to him and clasp his hand in a brotherly grip. What can I possibly say to him? My face must say something that no words can convey. He thanks me and thanks God that I’m his captain. Tears well in my eyes as I try to comfort him. My face is burning in anger, in frustration, in compassion, as I release his hand. My heart splinters. The stainless-steel handhold connected to the galley bench has been bent … Did a metal meal cart hit that bar, or a human body? I shudder in disbelief at the force required to deform that bar.
I must keep moving; I must continue my cabin inspection.
Across from Fuzzy, still in the crew seat, is Peter Casey, an off-duty captain. He has a bandage on his forehead partially covering his badly bruised left eye; blood is seeping through. His arm is immobilised in a sling, and his shirt is covered in a mix of blood and red wine. He looks like the victim of a violent home invasion, and I gaze upon him in shock and sympathy.
Peter and I engage in some brief conversation; as a pilot, he’s curious to know the reason the plane manoeuvred so violently.
“Oh my god, Peter. Are you okay? Is that blood on your shirt?”
“Some of it is, some is from the red we were drinking before we got knocked out. What the hell happened?”
I repeat my feeble answer that the computers went berserk, that I still don’t fully know the reasons but that they weren’t pilot-induced or turbulence-related. My face is flushed and my eyes are wet with suppressed tears as I leave Peter. Slowly, I make my way forward again. I can’t stop staring at the cabin’s ceiling, and my memory permanently records the busted plastic holes still holding on to hair and bloodied remnants of scalp, the broken luggage lockers, the dislodged ceiling panels and exposed ducting. It’s a nightmare reality, not of my doing, and not in my power to prevent.
It’s very lucky no one lost their life during the pitch-downs. A male passenger asks me to explain the aircraft’s behaviour.
I offer my canned reply. I must look sad because he asks: “How are you doing?”
“I’m okay, thanks. It’s just going to be a long day.” I’m a lousy liar.
Passing the forward galley again, I meet with some of my crew. Samantha has a bruised eye, Kimberly can’t move her neck without pivoting from the waist like a robot, and Tasha is favouring an injured shoulder. Rory is active in his zone, interacting with the passengers there.
This is such bullshit; how could this happen?
My career in commercial aviation has been anything but boring and routine. I’ve been challenged by many equipment failures and severe weather events, and I’ve always managed them appropriately and efficiently. Many have been classified as extreme events: an uncontained engine failure with strong vibration; airframe and engine damage caused by very bad hail on take-off; severe icing at altitude resulting in engine damage; and numerous fume events.
I’ve learnt from these events, but none have generated the body response or trauma that this one has on October 7, 2008. This scenario involving computers, denial of control and potential mass casualties is at a different level. It seems we’ve survived a science-fiction scenario, a No Man’s Land of automation failure on an unprecedented scale. I wasn’t in a position to guess what was happening or to make up a procedure. But I had to make some big decisions – extreme decisions to cater for an extreme event.
Looks like my shit-magnet reputation will soar to new heights after this. I know my crew and I will be thoroughly questioned in corporate headquarters. I must try to make sense of what I saw, how I reacted and what I said. My compliance with company and Airbus procedures will be heavily scrutinised by safety and fleet management pilots.
Have I missed something? I mentally review the sequence of failures and bad air data presented to me in the form of unreliable speed and altitude on my primary flight display tapes. But I can’t access the information that was generated from the Air Data Inertial Reference Unit (ADIRU) and presented to the aircraft’s computer systems. Perhaps the computers activated some “protections” that are built into their software – but surely we should have been warned that these protections would be activated. Why hasn’t the post-flight report or the status summary indicated which modes were activated and for what reason? Like a bad partner, the computer’s systems went crazy then stopped communicating with me.
Like a bad partner, the computer’s systems went crazy then stopped communicating with me.
This complex failure scenario was not raised during the Airbus conversion course. I doubt that even the Airbus test pilots have been exposed to this scenario. One thing is certain: the computers blocked my control inputs. For a pilot, loss of control is the ultimate threat. It’s our job to control the aircraft, and if computers and their software, by design, can remove that functionality from the pilot, then nothing good is going to come out of that. I know our decision to divert to the airfield at Learmonth, instead of continuing on to Perth, will be scrutinised. But what risks would we have taken if we’d flown the extra distance to Perth? I shudder at the thought. I find hollow solace from the doctor in Two and a Half Men: “If you put a tuxedo on a goat, it’s still a goat.”
In the aftermath of QF72, I retreat to my cave to let the dust settle, try to make sense of my body’s chemical rebellion and contemplate the future.
I keep thinking about the decisions I made and what could have been if the sequence of events had changed slightly. I’m lucky I wasn’t physically injured: there was a margin of about five minutes where I wasn’t secured while on my way back to the flight deck. If I’d been recalled from my rest break a few moments later and the meal service had finished a few minutes earlier, I would have been in the forward galley – as First Officer Peter was when he got injured – checking on my crew before returning to the flight deck for my duty period.
The threat presented to my brain of crashing into the water at the hands of out-of-control computers activated an enormous fight-or-flight response. I’m sure it’s the same for a soldier, police officer or first responder – if you’re placed in any position where you ask yourself, “Is my life going to end now?” then your life changes. I need information about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) now, and my first stop is a visit to my doctor. I hope he can shed some light on what is happening to me a week after my wild ride. A commercial pilot is directly responsible for the lives of those on every flight, and few occupations shoulder the level of responsibility that a pilot must manage throughout their commercial flying career.
The appointment with my GP starts with my description of the flight. An aviation enthusiast, he’s intrigued by the complexity of our failures and the workload we faced. I then recount the body response issues that I experienced during the flight and in the days since. He knows of my military background in the US Navy and the RAAF and agrees that this falls outside the boundaries of my extreme experience. As he describes the symptoms of a “chemical imbalance” associated with a traumatic event, he writes notes:
1) Mood swings.
3) Crying spells.
4) Early morning waking: 2am-3am.
5) Appetite disturbance.
6) No motivation.
7) Poor concentration/memory.
8) Low libido.
I’m nodding as he reels off these symptoms, then I quietly start ticking off those I have experienced in the past few days. I explain my disrupted sleep, including the nightmares. As we discuss the list of symptoms, my alarm grows. Self-harm? Could I ever allow myself to do that? Part of me wants to dismiss this discussion as a short-term hiccup, but the other half accepts the precarious and potentially dangerous territory I’m navigating through. We talk about my libido, and I admit that I feel it has been affected.
“Do you need something for that?” he asks. “Yes, that would help.” He scribbles on his prescription pad and slides the form over to me as we keep talking. I tell him I’ll be taking some time off work, and he starts to fill in a worker’s comp form, annotated again with the abbreviation I’m starting to dread: “PTSD.” The process of documenting my injury has begun.
I collect the various pieces of paper he has filled out for me. Glancing at the prescription for the first time, I see it’s for Viagra. “Hey! What’s this for?!” I wave the prescription in front of him.
“You said you needed something for your libido!”
“Not for that! How is this going to help my disrupted sleep?”
He quickly scribbles a script for some mild sleeping pills.
“But do you want to hang on to that other prescription too?” he asks sheepishly.
“Actually, Doc, I don’t really need any assistance in that department.”
We laugh, and I thank him. But the levity of our banter is replaced by solemn concern as I digest our discussion on the drive home. I stop to fill the prescription for the sleeping pills but don’t ever use them. For the first time, a wave of sadness wafts over me.
I’m alarmed by my body response issues and the PTSD label. I know I need time to power down from this event, but I’ll get back to work later on … won’t I? This internal questioning, in itself, concerns me. I’m working overtime to prevent it from consuming me.
With time on my hands, I’m able to explore the flurry of media articles being written about QF72. Initial media coverage on October 7 and 8 was inaccurate, citing potential causes for the pitch-downs as autopilot malfunction or clear-air turbulence.
Qantas published its first official statement on the Qantas and One World website on October 8, under the headline “Qantas Update on QF72”. It summarised the event and said that the company was co-operating with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) in the investigation. The Royal Flying Doctor Service and other support agencies were formally recognised and thanked, and the main corporate focus was on the welfare of the passengers and crew. The statement ended by commending the professionalism of the crew in safely handling the emergency.
For the ATSB team of investigators, the QF72 accident presents an enormous challenge in determining the causes of the computer and systems failures that confronted the operating crew and injured so many. On October 14, 2008, the ATSB team presents its initial findings at a media conference in Canberra. Examination of the recorded flight data from the aircraft has revealed significant failures of the automation, specifically that the air-data processing portion of the Air Data Inertial Reference Unit produced “spiked values” of data that were responsible for the false stall and over-speed warnings, the loss of the captain’s instrumentation and the loss of other systems. This falsely generated data was responsible for the pitch-downs ordered by the flight-control computers and the subsequent faults with the electronic flight-control systems.
The ATSB team comment on the actions of the flight crew: “The crew’s timely response led to the recovery of the aircraft’s trajectory within seconds.” On October 15, Airbus issues the first of several operational engineering bulletins to address issues with abnormal operation and faults associated with the air-data computers. This is in response to the ongoing ATSB investigation, and is formulated after the recorded data from the aircraft has been downloaded and analysed. The enhanced procedure directs pilots to turn off both the inertial and air data portions of the ADIRU if any faults are displayed on the pilot’s instrumentation.
I’ve become very isolated. When you’ve been to the Moon, you can only talk to astronauts.
In January 2016 – almost eight years later – I’m burdened by my most recent flight and mired in a month-long cycle of soul-searching. My aviation medical is due for renewal in February.
I have a vivid dream. I’m flying at night; a supervised flight with a senior pilot observing. He puts me to the test, and I pass all the requirements. For some reason, I look down through the cockpit window and see a long road in an isolated area. At the end of the road is a car with its headlights on. I put down the wheels and flaps and land on that road, taxiing towards the waiting headlights. I shut down the engines and calmly climb from the aircraft on a ladder. The other pilots only stare in silence and don’t try to stop me.
My daughter is beside the car. She waves and smiles as I approach. I give her a big hug and together we drive away. I don’t look back. I wake up with the realisation that I have to make a choice. I’ve been labelled a PTSD sufferer, but what does that really mean to me? I have to strip away the emotion, exposing the realities of persevering or ending my flying career. My 60th birthday is coming up later in the year. Flying is my passion. I’ve dedicated my life to being a pilot, and not an ordinary one. Following the course to fly fighters off aircraft carriers required total commitment, superior performance and courage. I cherished every second I was strapped into those fire-breathing machines. The good dreams I have are centred on that exciting and dangerous life.
Now I’ve survived something that science-fiction stories are made of. The Kevin Sullivan I invested all my time and resources into developing has been compromised, battered and thrown into a minefield without a map.
I’ve become very isolated. When you’ve been to the Moon, you can only talk to astronauts. I’m a self-exiled cave man, which I’ve adopted as a coping mechanism. If I stop flying, I’ll lose the security and structure of employment, but should I stay tethered to a workplace that will only complicate my life further? The boundaries between PTSD and depression are blurred.
I’ve resorted to medication to prolong my 30-year career, but the side effects have left me numb and robotic. The medication does not prevent me from feeling worried or threatened, they only stop the body’s untethered release of chemicals in response to these feelings. Is this how I want to live my remaining years?
I have to face the truth: my passion has become a cross to bear. This life-changing event has also damaged my daughter. She’s had to watch helplessly as my persona changed. She knows she could have lost her dad on this day and that is very confronting.
It’s okay honey, I’m still here.
In my dream she was there to take me away, waiting for me with a big smile and relief in her sparkling eyes. She knew I had decided to stop, and she was happy. That dream answers all my concerns, and I listen to it. I meet with my specialist to discuss my position. He’s been monitoring my struggle, so my news is no surprise to him. He agrees it’s time for me to stop. However, when I meet Qantas medical, they seem a bit surprised. “I’m not okay,” I repeat. “And if I truthfully answer the mental-health questions in my upcoming aviation medical, I won’t pass. What do you want me to do? Take the medical and fail, or just stop now and let the company decide my fate?”
“But you’re back flying.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m okay. I don’t think I’ll ever be okay. PTSD doesn’t just go away. The company policies encourage us to self-report and … well, I just have.”
A month later, I inform Qantas medical that I’ve finished taking medication for my condition and that redeployment within the company isn’t an option. My decision is irreversible. I’ve honoured my commitment to stop flying if I ever doubted my ability to continue. I made the courageous decision before it was made for me. I’ve been trying to navigate my way out of No Man’s Land, back to safety and salvation. If I need to leave something behind so I can move forward, then so be it.
Edited extract from No Man’s Land: the Untold Story of Automation and QF72 by Kevin Sullivan (ABC Books, $34.99) is out on May 31.