Qantas plane had glitch before altitude plunge

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) — Instruments aboard a Qantas airliner warned of a glitch in its stabilization system when it suddenly rose and plunged, tossing unbelted passengers to the ceiling and injuring more than 70 people, Australian investigators said Wednesday.

File image of a Qantas airliner

The Australian carrier has been plagued by a series of other safety issues recently.

The A330-300 was carrying 303 passengers and 10 crew from Singapore to the Western Australian city of Perth, and was nearing its destination Tuesday when it experienced the sudden altitude changes while flying at 37,000 feet.

The plane made an emergency landing in Learmonth, Western Australia.

Passenger Jim Ford, of Perth, said he thought he was about to die as he watched people being flung around the cabin.

“It was horrendous, absolutely gruesome, terrible, the worst experience of my life,” he said after being transferred to Perth airport following the incident.

Air Transport Safety Bureau investigators quarantined the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder and planned to interview crew and passengers. Video Watch more about the incident »

Julian Walsh, director of the bureau’s aviation safety investigation, told reporters that the pilots received electronic messages “relating to some irregularity with the aircraft’s elevator control system.”

That system helps keep the plane stable and level in flight.

The aircraft then “departed level flight,” and climbed approximately 300 feet, he said.

“The crew had initiated the non-normal checklist response actions. The aircraft is then reported to have abruptly pitched nose down,” Walsh said.

It was unclear how far in altitude the aircraft dropped during the incident.

Passengers who were not wearing seatbelts flew into the air, some hitting the ceiling of the plane.

Walsh said 14 people had serious, but not life-threatening, injuries such as concussions and broken bones. Thirty other passengers were treated in hospitals for concussions, minor lacerations and fractures. Another 30 people with minor bruises and stiff necks did not require hospital treatment.

Walsh said it was too soon to draw any conclusions about the specific cause of the accident, but that a preliminary report would be released within 30 days.

The ATSB investigation will examine the flight data recorders, on-board computer systems, air traffic control and radar warnings and weather conditions, he said.

A Qantas spokesman said the airline had no immediate response and no update on the incident.

It was the latest in a string of issues to plague the Australian airline since one of its flights was forced to make an emergency landing in the Philippines in July after an oxygen tank exploded on board, ripping a gaping hole in the fuselage

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