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22 October 2008

Complacency and the Qantas A330 Accident of 7 October 2008

The accident earlier this month involving a Qantas Airbus A330 on a flight from Singapore to Perth seriously injured several passengers, but didn't result in any fatalities. While the event drew substantial news media attention in Australia and Asia, there was very little mention of it by major US media. This is very likely another example of how when it comes to airline events, it's difficult to get the attention of the US public, or of the policy makers in the US, if no one is killed.

My belief was that there would have been more media attention in the US if there had been at least one recent fatal event involving a US airline. While researching recent fatal US events, I found that the most recent passenger fatality on a US airliner was in August 2006. Looking back further, I realized that the US airline industry had quietly passed a milestone. The 26-month period between the last fatal US event and the date of this recording on October 21st, 2008 is the longest period without a passenger fatality on a US airliner since airlines in the US first began using jet aircraft in 1958.

One could argue that there's a certain amount of public complacency about airline safety when there are no major accidents. Looking through my archives, I found that this wasn't the first time I'd dealt with this subject. In late May 2004, the US airline industry was in the midst of another fatality-free period. At the time, it had been nearly 17 months since the last fatal US airline event. That month, I was interviewed as part of a National Public Radio program on airline safety that discussed some of the reasons for that absence of fatal events.

In the following segment, you'll hear my interview with Mike Pesca of NPR about some of the reasons behind the reduction of accidents. Also interviewed was David Evans of the publication Air Safety Week, who talked about how accidents drive the regulatory process.

Five months after the show aired, a regional airliner crashed in Missouri, killing both crew members and 11 of the 13 passengers, bringing to an end a 21-month period with no US passenger fatalities. Currently, the US airline industry has gone 26 months without a passenger fatality. This current fatality-free period is a sign that in spite of all the problems faced the industry, that the risk faced by passengers continues to decline.

Although this record is a positive sign for the industry, the recent Qantas event demonstrated that no airline, even one with no passenger fatalities in its history, is immune from accidents.

I'd like to remind the audience that however good the system may be, there's always room for improvement. One way to improve things is to learn from those rare events such as what happened with Qantas earlier this month. will continue to follow the accident investigation, and any future podcasts about the event, or news from the investigation, will be available at

You can hear the associated podcast, which includes my interview with NPR, at:

11 October 2008

Interview with a Passenger on the Qantas A330 Accident Flight of 7 October 2008

This show features an interview with Keesin Ng, a passengers on a Qantas A330 aircraft that experienced a violent in-flight upset during a flight from Singapore to Perth on 7 October 2008. About 75 passengers and crew members were injured during this event, with 14 hospitalized with serious injuries such as fractures and lacerations.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, or ATSB, is currently investigating this event, and because of the extent of the injuries on board, the ATSB has classified it as an accident. In a media briefing three days after the accident, the ATSB reported that the Qantas A330-300 aircraft was in level flight at 37,000 feet when the pilots received messages from their aircraft's monitoring system indicating some kind of control system problem.

The aircraft reportedly had a uncommanded climb of about 200 feet, followed by a return back to 37,000 feet. About a minute after returning to cruising altitude, the aircraft abruptly pitched nose-down, to a maximum angle of about 8.4 degrees, and descended about 650 feet in about 20 seconds, before returning to the cruising level.

About 70 seconds later, there was a further nose-down pitch, to a maximum pitch angle of about 3.5 degrees, and the aircraft descended about 400 feet in about 16 seconds. During the first pitch-down event, a number of passengers and crew members were thrown about the cabin, resulting in a range of injuries.

The crew declared an emergency and diverted to Learmonth, landing about 40 minutes after the start of the event.

The interview occurred three days after the event with passenger Keesin Ng, who provides additional details about the in-flight drama. You can hear that interview at the link below:

Interview with Keesin Ng (MP3)

For additional information, including's initial video and audio podcast about the accident and updates to the ATSB's accident investigation, visit

08 October 2008

Serious Injuries on a Qantas A330 Flight on 7 October 2008

A Qantas Airbus A330-300, with 303 passengers and 10 crew members on board, was on a scheduled international flight from Singapore to Perth. While in cruise, the aircraft reportedly experienced some type of sudden and unexpected altitude change. The crew issued a mayday call before diverting the aircraft to the airport at Learmonth, near the town of Exmouth, about 1100 kilometers or 680 miles north of its intended destination of Perth.

Overview of the Event

Other Podcast Links
Audio: MP3
Video: iPod/MP4 | WMV | Google Video | YouTube

About 36 passengers and crew members were injured, with over a dozen severe injuries. Reportedly, several occupants were slammed into the ceiling during the event. Most of the injuries were to passengers and crew in the rear of the aircraft, and at least one person was carried off the plane in a stretcher. About 13 of the most seriously injured were flown to Perth by four aircraft from the Royal Flying Doctor Service. One flight attendant was hospitalized with suspected head and spinal injuries. Other serious injuries included fractures, lacerations, and a concussion.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has a team of seven investigators currently working on this incident, and it will likely be several days before a preliminary cause is announced, and several months before a final report is issued.

This is the first significant passenger safety event for the A330. Qantas currently has 15 A330 aircraft in its fleet, including 10 of the A330-300 model.

This is the second significant safety event for Qantas this year. On July 25, an exploding oxygen bottle blew a hole in the fuselage of a Qantas 747 en route from Hong Kong to Melbourne, causing a rapid decompression and forcing an emergency landing in Manila. No passengers were injured in that event.

Other significant safety events for Qantas in the last decade include a 2000 event in Rome involving the collapse of a 747 landing gear, and in 1999 a landing overrun in Bangkok severely damaged another Qantas 747.

In August 2008, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority of Australia conducted a review of Qantas safety and found no system-wide safety issues, but did recommend an audit of the airline's maintenance practices, including a full maintenance audit of one aircraft from three of the models flown by Qantas, the 737-400, 747-400, and 767-300. No maintenance audit was ordered for the airline's A330 fleet.

Additional information about this event, including updates or findings from the investigation or from the Qantas maintenance audit, will be available at

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03 October 2008

Discovery of the Steve Fossett Crash Site

On September 3rd, 2007, adventurer Steve Fossett took off from Yerington, Nevada on a short flight in a Bellanca Super Decathlon, and went missing. After more than a year, a hiker found some of his personal effects high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California on September 29, 2008. Two days later, authorities spotted wreckage from his aircraft. Possible human remains were also found at the site.

The aircraft crashed into a steep granite slope at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, seven miles west of the town of Mammoth Lakes, California. The crash site is about 93 miles or 150 kilometers south of Yerington, Nevada. Pieces of the plane were scattered over a steeply sloped area, with the engine about 300 feet from the fuselage wreckage. There was also evidence of a post crash fire. Fossett was the only occupant.

About Steve Fossett
According to an earlier NTSB report, Fossett's most recent medical certificate was completed seven months before his final flight. At that time, he had over 6,700 hours of flight experience, with 350 hours in the previous six months. He was certified as an airline transport pilot, and was also certified to fly a balloon, helicopter, seaplane, and glider.

He had set over 100 records in five different sports, including over 90 in aviation. Among those aviation records was the first solo nonstop flight around the world in an aircraft, as well as the first solo round the world balloon flight. Outside of aviation, he had also sailed around the world and swam across the English Channel.

About the Bellanca Decathlon
The accident aircraft was a Bellanca Decathlon, a two-seat, single engine aerobatic aircraft. That model was produced between 1970 and 1981, and the accident aircraft was manufactured in 1980. According to the NTSB, between 1973 and 2008 there have been 105 Decathlon accidents, with 80 resulting in fatalities.

Accident Investigation
The NTSB has sent a team to investigate the crash, and is headed by the NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker. The investigation, including a determination of the probable cause of the accident, will likely take several months to complete.

Additional information about this event, including updates or findings from the NTSB investigation, will be available at

Below are links to the podcast and video about this event.
Audio: MP3

Video: iPod/MP4 | WMV | Google Video | YouTube

Video Report on the Fossett Crash

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