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Autopilot blamed for Qantas plunge

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Australian air traffic investigators believe the Qantas Airbus which suddenly lost altitude over Western Australia, seriously injuring 14 passengers, may have suffered from computer problems.

The Airbus A330-300 was flying normally at 37,000 feet when the computer system warned of an irregularity with the elevation system and caused the plane to climb 300 feet. The crew carried out checks when the plane "abruptly pitched nose-down".

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau said: "During this sudden and significant nose-down pitch, a number of passengers, cabin crew and loose objects were thrown about the aircraft cabin, primarily in the rear of the aircraft, resulting in a range of injuries to some cabin crew and passengers."

Crew put out a PAN PAN emergency alert to air traffic control and requested a diversion to Learmonth. A few minutes later they put out a MAYDAY call that several passengers were seriously injured. The Singapore-Perth flight landed safely at Learmonth some 40 minutes after the incident.

14 passengers with broken bones and concussion were airlifted to hospital in Perth. Another 30 people were treated for minor injuries and lacerations. In total 74 people, out of 303 passengers and ten crew, were injured. The full ATSB statement is here.

The ATSB continues to go through flight data and voice recordings, maintenance and weather records and will interview pilots, crew and passengers from the flight. It is being assisted by a representative of French accident investigators, as the home nation of the aircraft, and a flight control expert from Airbus.

Investigators promised a more detailed report within 30 days but said the incident illustrated the importance of passengers keeping seatbelts fastened while aboard aircraft. ®

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