Do Computers Make Planes Less or More Safe?

Ben Cave was starting to get bored. The Australian had been sitting in his seat for more than three hours, and he still had two hours left before the Qantas jet was scheduled to touch down in Perth.

The Airbus A330 was flying at a cruising altitude of 11,278 meters (37,000 feet). The calm of modern jet travel, accentuated by the monotonous drone of the engines, prevailed on board the aircraft. The flight attendants were clearing away the last of the lunch trays into their trolleys, some of the 303 passengers were waiting near the toilets, and others were passing the time with stretching exercises.

Ben Cave unfastened his seatbelt, stood up, opened the overhead luggage compartment and fished around for a magazine and a pen, hoping to make the remainder of the flight pass more quickly.

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That was when the longest few minutes of his life began.

At 12:40 p.m. and 28 seconds, the autopilot in the cockpit suddenly disabled itself. While the unsuspecting Cave was digging around in the overhead luggage compartment, lights were flashing and alarms were going off in the cockpit. Error codes flashed onto the central monitor: AUTO FLT AP OFF, NAV IR1 FAULT. Then a metallic voice said, ominously: Stall! Stall! Stall! Danger: The aircraft is too slow. The airstream over the wings is about to decrease!

Then there was another warning sound and the words, in red, appeared on the screen: Overspeed! Overspeed! Overspeed! The aircraft is too fast!

For a few seconds, the captain and the co-pilot must have thought that they were merely dealing with the quirks of a flight computer. The engines were running normally, the aircraft was perfectly positioned in the airstream and the weather radar was not reporting any turbulence.

An Invisible Hand

"What's this thing doing now?" the irritated pilot usually says at such moments, and in most cases all it takes to fix the problem is to restart the computer, or simply wait until the computer resets itself.

But this time it seemed as if an invisible hand had taken control of the aircraft. A few moments later, at 12:42 and 27 seconds, it became clear that it was not going to be business as usual on board Flight QF 72. The nose of the aircraft was suddenly pitched sharply downward, 8.4 degrees over the horizon, headed toward the earth. The aircraft quickly picked up speed and the sound of air rushing by grew louder. The plane was in a nosedive.

"My head hit the cabin ceiling," says Cave, remembering his experience on that Oct. 7, 2008, en route from Singapore to Perth. All around him, passengers were suddenly flying into the air, their bodies smashing against the plastic ceiling, where they remained frozen in place. The forces that had suddenly been unleashed seemed capable of controlling the passengers' bodies like puppets on a string.

"For a few seconds, I thought it was all over," says Cave.

As in the cabin, there was a feeling of powerlessness, of being in the hands of fate, in the cockpit of the A330 with the tail number VH-QPA. Using all of his strength, the pilot pulled back the control stick, desperately trying to get the plane back onto a safe horizontal flight path. But for several long seconds, his efforts were completely ineffective.

As if guided by evil forces, the Airbus was plunging to its doom.

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