Open main menu

Qantas Flight 72 (QF72) is a scheduled flight from Singapore Changi Airport to Perth Airport. On 7 October 2008 the flight made an emergency landing at Learmonth airport near the town of Exmouth, Western Australia following an inflight accident featuring a pair of sudden uncommanded pitch-down manoeuvres that severely injured many of the passengers and crew.[1][2][3][4][5] The injuries included fractures, lacerations and spinal injuries. At Learmonth, the plane was met by the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and CareFlight,[6][7] where 14 people were airlifted to Perth for hospitalisation, with 39 others also attending hospital.[8][9][10] Two planes were sent by Qantas to Learmonth to collect the remaining passengers and crew.[11] In all, one crew member and 11 passengers suffered serious injuries, while eight crew and 99 passengers suffered minor injuries.[12] The Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation found a fault with one of the aircraft's three air data inertial reference units and a previously unknown software design limitation of the Airbus A330's fly-by-wire flight control primary computer (FCPC).

Qantas Flight 72
Airbus A330-303, Qantas AN0743607.jpg
VH-QPA, the aircraft involved pictured in 2004
Date7 October 2008
SummaryIn-flight upset due to software error resulting two pitch-downs
Site80NM from Learmonth
22°14′06″S 114°05′18″E / 22.23500°S 114.08833°E / -22.23500; 114.08833Coordinates: 22°14′06″S 114°05′18″E / 22.23500°S 114.08833°E / -22.23500; 114.08833
Aircraft typeAirbus A330-303
Aircraft nameKununurra
Flight originSingapore Changi Airport, Singapore
DestinationPerth Airport, Australia
Injuries119 (12 serious)
Survivors315 (all)



On 7 October 2008, Qantas Flight 72 was scheduled to fly from Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) to Perth Airport (PER). The aircraft, VH-QPA was delivered new to Qantas on 26 November 2003, initially as an A330-301. It later had a change in engine type fitted and was re-designated as an Airbus A330-303 in November 2004.[13]

The crew was led by Captain Kevin Sullivan, a former US Navy pilot. The first officer was Peter Lipsett, and the second officer was Ross Hales. There were 303 passengers and 9 cabin crew aboard.[14]

Flight detailsEdit

Damage to the cabin after the incident.

At 09:32 SST, on 7 October 2008, Qantas flight 72, with 303 passengers, three flight crew, and nine cabin crew, departed Singapore on a scheduled flight to Perth, Western Australia. By 10:01, the aircraft had reached its cruise altitude of around 37,000 feet (11,000 m) and was maintaining a cruising speed of Mach 0.82.

The incident started at 12:40:26 WST, when one of the aircraft’s three air data inertial reference units (ADIRU) started providing incorrect data to the flight computer. In response to the anomalous data, the autopilot disengaged automatically, and a few seconds later, the pilots received electronic messages on the aircraft ECAM, warning them of an irregularity with the autopilot and inertial reference systems, and aural stall and overspeed warnings. During this time, the captain began to manually control the aircraft. The autopilot was then re-engaged and the aircraft started to return to the prior selected flight level. The autopilot was disengaged by the crew after about 15 seconds and would remain disengaged for the remainder of the flight.

At 12:42:27, the aircraft made a sudden uncommanded pitch down manoeuvre, recording –0.8 g,[note 1] reaching 8.4 degrees pitch down and rapidly descending 650 feet (200 m). Twenty seconds later, the pilots were able to return the aircraft to the assigned cruise flight level 370. At 12:45:08, the aircraft then made a second uncommanded manoeuvre of similar nature, this time reaching +0.2 g[note 2], 3.5 degrees pitch down and descending 400 feet (120 m), re-establishing level flight 16 seconds later.[15][16] Unrestrained passengers and crew as well as some restrained passengers were flung around the cabin or crushed by overhead luggage as well as crashing with overhead compartments. The pilots stabilised the plane and declared a state of alert, which was later updated to mayday when the extent of injuries was relayed to the flight crew.[8][17]


The ATSB investigation is supported by the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), Qantas, the French Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la sécurité de l'Aviation Civile (BEA) and Airbus.[3] Copies of data from the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder were sent to the BEA and Airbus.[16]

The aircraft was equipped with a Northrop Grumman made ADIRU, which investigators sent to the manufacturer in the United States for further testing.[18][19] On 15 January 2009 the EASA issued an emergency airworthiness directive[20] to address the above A330 and A340 Northrop-Grumman ADIRU problem of incorrectly responding to a defective inertial reference.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) identified in a preliminary report that a fault occurred within the Number 1 Air Data Inertial Reference Unit (ADIRU) and is the "likely origin of the event". The ADIRU (one of three such devices on the aircraft) began to supply incorrect data to the other aircraft systems.[21][22][23]

The initial effects of the fault were:[4]

About two minutes later, ADIRU No. 1, which was providing data to the captain's primary flight display, provided very high (and false) indications for the aircraft's angle of attack (AOA), leading to:[4]

  • the flight control computers commanding a nose-down aircraft movement, which resulted in the aircraft pitching down to a maximum of about 8.5 degrees,
  • the triggering of a Flight Control Primary Computer (FCPC) pitch fault.

FCPC design limitationEdit

Angle of attack (AOA) is a critically important flight parameter, and full-authority flight control systems such as those equipping A330/A340 aircraft require accurate AOA data to function properly. The aircraft was fitted with three ADIRUs to provide redundancy and enable fault tolerance, and the FCPCs used the three independent AOA values to check their consistency. In the usual case, when all three AOA values were valid and consistent, the average value of AOA 1 and AOA 2 was used by the FCPCs for their computations. If either AOA 1 or AOA 2 significantly deviated from the other two values, the FCPCs used a memorised value for 1.2 seconds. The FCPC algorithm was very effective, but it could not correctly manage a scenario where there were multiple spikes in either AOA 1 or AOA 2 that were 1.2 seconds apart.

As with other safety-critical systems, the development of the A330/A340 flight control system during 1991 and 1992 had many elements to minimise the risk of a design error. These included peer reviews, a system safety assessment (SSA), and testing and simulations to verify and validate the system requirements. None of these activities identified the design limitation in the FCPC’s AOA algorithm.

The ADIRU failure mode had not been previously encountered, or identified by the ADIRU manufacturer in its safety analysis activities. Overall, the design, verification and validation processes used by the aircraft manufacturer did not fully consider the potential effects of frequent spikes in data from an ADIRU.

Airbus has stated that it is not aware of a similar incident occurring previously on an Airbus aircraft. Airbus has released an Operators Information Telex to operators of Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft with procedural recommendations and checklists to minimise risk in the event of a similar incident.[4]

Final reportEdit


After detailed forensic analysis of the FDR data, the flight control primary computer (FCPC) software and the air data inertial reference unit (ADIRU), it was determined that the CPU of the ADIRU corrupted the angle of attack (AOA) data. The exact nature was that the ADIRU CPU erroneously relabelled the altitude data word so that the binary data that represented 37,012 (the altitude at the time of the incident) would represent an angle of attack of 50.625 degrees. The FCPC then processed the erroneously high AOA data, triggering the high-AOA protection mode, which sent a command to the electrical flight control system (EFCS) to pitch the nose down.[24]

Potential trigger typesEdit

A number of potential trigger types were investigated, including software bugs, software corruption, hardware faults, electromagnetic interference and the secondary high energy particles generated by cosmic rays. Although a definitive conclusion could not be reached, there was sufficient information from multiple sources to conclude that most of the potential triggers were very unlikely to have been involved. A much more likely scenario was that a marginal hardware weakness of some form made the units susceptible to the effects of some type of environmental factor, which triggered the failure mode.[24]

The ATSB assessment of speculation that possible interference from Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt or passenger personal electronic devices could have been involved was 'extremely unlikely'.[24]


The ATSB's final report, issued on 19 December 2011, concluded that the incident "occurred due to the combination of a design limitation in the flight control primary computer (FCPC) software of the Airbus A330/Airbus A340, and a failure mode affecting one of the aircraft's three air data inertial reference units (ADIRUs). The design limitation meant that, in a very rare and specific situation, multiple spikes in angle of attack (AOA) data from one of the ADIRUs could result in the FCPCs commanding the aircraft to pitch down."[24]

Subsequent Qantas Flight 71 incidentEdit

On 27 December 2008, a Qantas A330-300 aircraft operating from Perth to Singapore was involved in an occurrence approximately 260 nautical miles (480 km) north-west of Perth and 350 nautical miles (650 km) south of Learmonth Airport at 1729 WST while flying at 36,000 feet. The autopilot disconnected and the crew received an alert indicating a problem with ADIRU Number 1. The crew actioned the revised procedure released by Airbus after the earlier accident and returned to Perth uneventfully. The ATSB included the incident in their existing accident investigation of Flight 72.[25] The incident again fuelled media speculation regarding the significance of the Harold E. Holt facility, with the Australian and International Pilots Association calling for commercial aircraft to be barred from the area as a precaution until the events could be better understood,[26][27] while the manager of the facility claimed that it was "highly, highly unlikely" that any interference had been caused.[28]


In the aftermath of the accident, Qantas offered compensation to all passengers. The airline announced it would refund the cost of all travel on their itineraries covering the accident flight, offer a voucher equivalent to a return trip to London applicable to their class of travel and pay for medical expenses arising from the accident. Further compensation claims would be considered on a case by case basis,[29] with several passengers from the flight pursuing legal action against Qantas. One couple asserted that they were wearing their seatbelts at the time of the incident and questioned Qantas' handling of their cases.[30][31]

Dramatisation and bookEdit

In 2018 the events of Qantas 72 were featured in "Free Fall" (Season 18, Episode 7) in the Canadian TV series Mayday.[32] In May 2019 a book on the incident by Kevin Sullivan (the captain of the flight) was published in Australia.[33] In June 2019, Seven Network's Sunday Night featured the events of Qantas 72 through several passengers and crew that were onboard the flight, including Sullivan, flight attendant Fuzzy Maiava, as well as US Airways Flight 1549 captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.[34]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Normal condition is +1.0 g. As an aircraft is accelerated downward (for example, by a sudden uncommanded pitch-down, as in this case), g-forces may decrease to 0.0, at which point weightlessness is experienced, and if the downward acceleration is great enough, g-forces become negative. In this case, slightly less than one full negative g was experienced – from the in-cabin frame of reference, it was similar to if gravity had "reversed" and everything "fell" upwards.
  2. ^ In this second case, the downward acceleration produced by the uncommanded pitch-down was not enough to create zero or negative g forces, although it would have caused a sensation of near-weightlessness, similar to the first, highest drop on a roller coaster; +0.2 g would have made everything briefly near-weightless in the cabin, but would not have been enough to float people or objects substantially out of place or throw them around.


  1. ^ "2008/40 – Qantas Airbus Incident Media Conference" (Press release). Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 8 October 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  2. ^ "2008/40a – ATSB Airbus investigation update" (Press release). Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 9 October 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2008.
  3. ^ a b "2008/40b – Qantas Airbus Accident Media Conference" (Press release). Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 10 October 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d "2008/43 – Qantas Airbus A330 accident Media Conference" (Press release). Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 14 October 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2008.
  5. ^ Siddique, Haroon (7 October 2008). "Qantas flight makes emergency landing as dozens of passengers injured". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 October 2008.
  6. ^ Knowles, Gabrielle; Strick, Ben; Torre, Giovanne (8 October 2008). "Mayday in WA: Dozens hurt as Qantas jet plunges 8000ft". The West Australian. Archived from the original on 11 December 2008. Retrieved 7 March 2009.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Weber, David (8 October 2008). "Confusion surrounds Qantas emergency landing". AM. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 7 March 2009.
  8. ^ a b "In-flight upset, 154 km west of Learmonth, WA, 7 October 2008, VH-QPA, Airbus A330-303 – Interim Factual" (PDF). Aviation Occurrence Investigation AO-2008-070. Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 6 March 2009. Retrieved 7 March 2009.
  9. ^ Taylor, Rob (8 October 2008). "Computer glitch may have caused Qantas jet plunge". Reuters. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  10. ^ "Australian jet plunge injures 40". BBC News. 7 October 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  11. ^ Simon Hradecky (7 October 2008). "Accident: Qantas A333 near Learmonth on 7 Oct 2008, sudden inflight upset injures 74 people on board". The Aviation Herald.
  12. ^ "AO-2008-070: In-flight upset, 154 km west of Learmonth, WA, 7 October 2008, VH-QPA, Airbus A330-303". Aviation Safety Investigation Report – Preliminary. Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 14 November 2008. Archived from the original on 10 November 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  13. ^ "VH-QPA Qantas Airbus A330-303". Archived from the original on 29 October 2008. Retrieved 9 October 2008.
  14. ^ "Sunday Night: How a routine Qantas flight became a nightmare". Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  15. ^ "In-flight upset, 154 km west of Learmonth, WA, 7 October 2008, VH-QPA, Airbus A330-303" (PDF). Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 14 November 2008. Retrieved 15 November 2008.
  16. ^ a b Nicholson, B. (9 October 2008). "Data shows Qantas jet in two sudden plunges". The Age. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  17. ^ Hannon, K. (9 October 2008). "Qantas plunge probe 'may take months'". The Canberra Times. Archived from the original on 30 October 2008. Retrieved 12 October 2008.
  18. ^ "Computer error behind Qantas midair drama". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 14 October 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2008.
  19. ^ Steve Creedy (17 October 2008). "US tests on false data sent on Qantas jet over WA". The Australian. Archived from the original on 17 October 2008. Retrieved 16 October 2008.
  20. ^ Emergency Airworthiness Directive No 2009-0012-E Archived 5 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ "Computer glitch may be behind Qantas incident: ATSB". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 8 October 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  22. ^ "Qantas flight suffered computer 'irregularity'". The Australian. Australian Associated Press. 8 October 2008. Archived from the original on 9 October 2008. Retrieved 8 October 2008.
  23. ^ RICHARD SHEARS (8 October 2008). "Computer fault may have caused Qantas jet to plunge 8,000ft, say investigators". Daily Mail. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  24. ^ a b c d In-flight upset - Airbus A330-303, VH-QPA, 154 km west of Learmonth, WA, 7 October 2008
  25. ^ "Qantas Airbus A330 incident, 480km North West of Perth on 27 December 2008" (Press release). Melbourne: Australian Transport Safety Bureau. 2 January 2009. Retrieved 6 January 2009.
  26. ^ Catanzaro, Joseph (2 January 2009). "Navigation failure again hits Qantas in north-west". The Age. Melbourne.
  27. ^ "Call for no-go zone after another Qantas forced landing". The Age. Melbourne. 2 January 2009. Retrieved 2 January 2009.
  28. ^ Hopkin, Michael (7 January 2009). "Exmouth interference 'unlikely'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 7 January 2009.
  29. ^ Bibby, Paul (9 October 2008). "Qantas compo depends on class of seat". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 9 October 2008.
  30. ^ Roberts, Greg (6 November 2008). "Couple suing Qantas over plane plunge". The Sydney Morning Herald. AAP. Retrieved 6 November 2008.
  31. ^ Bibby, Paul (8 November 2008). "Qantas tried to trick me: passenger". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 November 2008.
  32. ^ "Air Crash Investigation - National Geographic". Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  33. ^ Sullivan, Kevin: No Man’s Land: the Untold Story of Automation and QF72. ABC Books, 2019
  34. ^ "QF72 | Hero pilot Kevin Sullivan's quick thinking saves 315 people | Sunday Night". Youtube. 3 June 2019. Retrieved 5 June 2019.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit