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A380 ‘free-fall nosedive’ prompts statement from Qantas

June 19, 2018 Headline News No Comments Email Email

A terrifying plunge by a Qantas A380 flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne, described by passengers as a “free-fall nosedive”, has prompted Qantas to issue a statement from its chief pilot to reassure travellers.

Passengers on Qantas flight QF94 last week said the alarming incident lasted about 10 seconds.

One woman aboard told The Australian that the plane suddenly hit violent turbulence “and then completely up-ended and we were nose­diving. We were all lifted from our seats immediately and we were in a free fall.”

“The lady sitting next to me and I screamed and held hands and just waited but thought with absolute certainty that we were going to crash. It was terrifying.”

Qantas chief pilot Richard Tobiano has now issued a statement, attributing the event to “wake turbulence’, saying QF94 was about 37 kilometres behind and 1000 feet below another Qantas A380 when it “encountered some disturbed air.

“The two aircraft were well aware of each other, but wake turbulence can be hard to predict and often arrives as a sudden jolt when you’re otherwise flying smoothly.”

This picture from a NASA study on wingtip vortices qualitatively illustrates wake turbulence.

Tobiano said the recent reports on QF94 show that turbulence is probably one of the most misunderstood elements of flying.

“For pilots, it’s an everyday part of our job and nothing to fear. Aircraft are engineered to deal with levels of turbulence well beyond anything you’d realistically encounter.

“But we’re conscious that turbulence can put passengers on edge – especially if it’s a sudden jolt. And because it is misunderstood, those jolts can be wrongly perceived as a “plunge” or “massive drop”.

“It helps to understand why turbulence happens,” Tobiano continued.

“Some causes are:

  • Sudden changes in wind direction and speed, particularly as aircraft climb to their cruising altitude where the air is usually smoother.
  • Turbulence associated with large, dense clouds.
  • Wake turbulence, which QF94 experienced this week over the Pacific Ocean. Large jet aircraft (like the A380 or 747) disturb the air behind them, similar to the wash from a boat. It’s uncommon but that disturbed air can cause bumps for nearby aircraft, even if they are a significant distance away.”

On the QF94 incident, Tobiano said the turbulence lasted for about 10 seconds and caused the nose of the aircraft to pitch up slightly.”

Tobiano said the “plunge” that a few passengers have described “was actually the A380 immediately returning itself to a steady state.

“Aircraft are designed to fly level and if turbulence disturbs that, the aircraft will adjust – including going back to the right altitude. QF94 performed exactly as it was supposed to in this scenario and so did its highly trained crew. The total movement in pitch was about three degrees.

“The Captain knew how this would have felt to passengers, so made an announcement to explain what happened and why it wasn’t cause for concern. The rest of the flight was uneventful.

“Serious aviation incidents need to be reported to the ATSB within 24 hours. Non-serious events like QF94 need to be reported within 72 hours and Qantas did that – one of hundreds of reports we and other airlines make each year that help make Australia’s aviation sector one of the world’s safest.

“A lot of effort goes into avoiding turbulence. Detailed weather reports, state-of the art weather radars, talking to other pilots flying along the same corridor and spacing between aircraft all help to smooth things out.

“Turbulence can be unexpected and uncomfortable, but provided you have your seatbelt on whenever you’re seated, it’s not something to fear.”

Wake turbulence, sometimes called jet wash, is a specific form of turbulence – a disturbance in the atmosphere that forms behind an aircraft as it passes through the air. It can be hazardous in the region behind an aircraft in the takeoff or landing phases of flight, although QF94 was never at risk, being two hours into the flight and separated from the other Qantas A380 by 37 kilometres.

Wake turbulence contributed to the second-deadliest aviation accident ever to occur in US airspace, the crash of American Airlines flight 587 on 12 November 2001.

Flight AA 587, operated with an Airbus A300B4-605R, was a scheduled international passenger flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Las Américas International Airport in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. The plane crashed crashed shortly after takeoff into the Belle Harbor neighbourhood of Queens, a borough of New York City, killing all 260 people aboard.

Because that accident happened in New York two months after the “9/11” attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan, initial suspicion focused on a terrorist attack.

An investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officially ruled out terrorism as the cause. The NTSB instead attributed the disaster to the first officer’s overuse of rudder controls in response to wake turbulence from a Japan Airlines B747-400 that took off minutes before it.

According to the NTSB, the co-pilot’s aggressive use of the rudder controls caused the vertical stabiliser to snap off the plane, along with the plane’s two engines separating from intense force before impact.

Written by Peter Needham

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