REVIEW: No Man’s Land by Kevin Sullivan
A gripping account of how a major air disaster was averted, by the captain and former Top Gun pilot
“Instinctively, I release my pressure on the sidestick. Out of my subconscious, a survival technique from a previous life emerges: Neutralise! I’m not in control so I must neutralise controls. I never imagined I’d use this part of my military experience in a commercial airliner …”
On routine flight QF72 from Singapore to Perth on 7 October 2008, the primary flight computers went rogue, causing the plane to pitch down, nose first, towards the Indian Ocean – twice.
The Airbus A330 carrying 315 passengers and crew was out of control, with violent negative G forces propelling anyone and anything untethered through the cabin roof.
It took the skill and discipline of veteran US Navy Top Gun Kevin Sullivan, captain of the ill-fated flight, to wrestle the plane back under control and perform a high-stakes emergency landing at a RAAF base on the WA coast 1200 kilometres north of Perth.
In No Man’s Land, the captain of the flight tells the full story for the first time. It’s a gripping, blow-by-blow account of how, along with his co-pilots, Sullivan relied on his elite military training to land the gravely malfunctioning plane and narrowly avert what could have been a horrific air disaster.
As automation becomes the way of the future, and in the aftermath of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 and Lion Air flight JT610, the story of QF72 raises important questions about how much control we relinquish to computers and whether more checks and balances are needed.
Dear Captain Sullivan,
After reading a news article earlier this year about QF (Qantas Flight) 72 and your upcoming book, I looked into getting a copy once it was released. Our readers here might remember that I have little interest at this point in life in getting aboard an aircraft yet I just can’t stay away from reading about flying. But unlike the other non-fiction books about pilots and flying I’ve reviewed here, this one examines the dark side and puts the reader right there in the terror of the moment when a plane was hijacked by computers.
Like no doubt many Americans, I either hadn’t heard about this incident or didn’t recall much about it because, fortunately for all on board, the plane was safely landed. We all know how quickly news coverage whips by an incident if nobody dies. Your book takes readers through what did happen when modern technology went haywire and the recent tragedies of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes remind us of what could have happened.
The relatively short time frame when the Airbus A330 reacted to faulty data and aggressively attempted to auto-correct for that data doesn’t correlate to the degree of the injuries and lingering damage done to so many- including yourself – aboard that day. Your narrative takes us along with the stressful challenges faced by you and the other two members of the flight crew attempting to determine what happened, would it happen a third time, should you divert to a isolated airfield, how badly injured were your passengers and cabin crew – all to the non-stop alarms and aural warnings blaring on the flight deck. The reactions of the ATSB members who reviewed the flight data and voice recorders testifies to how amazing it was that everyone flying the plane that day managed to remain so calm and focused in the face of all of this as systems continued to crash and pilot workload skyrocketed. And none of you lost your sense of humor.
Pete has been back on the flight deck for three minutes. In that time we’ve declared a pan, started our diversion and decided to declare a mayday.
Before Pete presses his radio switch, he recalls a saying from his old Australian Navy squadron: ‘If you’re gonna make a mayday call, don’t sound like a dick!’
I do have to admit that while reading the sections detailing your experiences as a US Naval Aviator, there were times when I was mentally singing ♪ “HIGHway toooo the danger zone.” ♫
My hat is off to the Australian aviation, police, and medical authorities who, acting on protocol, sprang into action to see to and assist the passengers and cabin crew as well as the airline employees who acted as pilot advocates as the investigation began all the way through the final report. What breaks my heart is the long term suffering that so many still now endure both emotionally and physically.
We survived a perfect storm of automation failure. I’ve already concluded there was nothing more I could have done to stop the injuries dished out by my confused Airbus A330, and this debrief with Sam has confirmed my assessment – but I don’t find comfort in that realisation. This accident damaged me and exposed me to the unforgettable images of my injured passengers and crew. The closure I’ve desperately sought is denied.
I consider the QF72 accident to be one of the most catastrophic in modern aviation. All the automated systems, designed and installed for enhanced safety, failed. A complex system created a complex and destructive failure.
The failure of the automation aboard QF72 pitched all of you into a No Man’s Land for which none of you, despite all your flight training, had been prepared. In the aftermath, a second No Man’s Land of emotional trauma would sideswipe you. The following years in which Air France 447 was lost and a Germanwings plane was crashed due to pilot depression pushed you further.
Frankly, I applaud both your effort to reclaim the profession you love and your realization and willingness to notify the airline that this was now beyond you. The rush seems to be gaining momentum to turn everything over to automation in an effort to keep us safe. But QF72 was saved by the actions of her flight crew and cabin crew. Well done to all of you. A-