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Page last updated at 07:38 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 08:38 UK

Australian jet plunge probe opens

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The plane was forced to make an unscheduled landing at Exmouth

A computer glitch may have caused a Qantas jet to plunge suddenly mid-flight, an Australian air safety investigator has said.

The incident injured 40 passengers, in a terrifying airborne drama.

Qantas officials said it was too soon to say what had caused the sudden drop in altitude that forced the Airbus A330-300 into an emergency landing.

The plane, flying from Singapore to Perth, landed near Exmouth in Western Australia after making a mayday call.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau's (ATSB) director of aviation safety, Julian Walsh, said the plane was cruising at 37,000 feet (11,200 metres) when pilots received an automated warning of an "irregularity".

They put two people in the seats in front of us - when I looked up they had their backs on the ceiling
Nigel Court, passenger
"The pilots received electronic centralised aircraft monitoring messages in the cockpit, relating to some irregularity with the aircraft's elevator control system," Mr Walsh told a news conference in Canberra on Wednesday.

"The aircraft departed normal flight and climbed 300 feet," Mr Walsh said later on Australian radio.

"The aircraft did that of its own accord and then, whilst the crew were doing the normal actions in response to that not normal situation, the aircraft then pitched down suddenly and quite rapidly," he said.

Mr Walsh added that it was not known how far the plane had fallen and cautioned that it was too early in the probe to draw any concrete conclusions as to what happened.

Map
ATSB investigators have begun arriving at an air force base in Exmouth, in remote northwest Western Australia. An investigator from the French Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses (BEA), which investigates air incidents, and another from the French-based aircraft manufacturer Airbus will also join the probe, he said.

Passengers were badly shaken by the incident.

One of them, Nigel Court, said the sudden change in altitude had caused mayhem on board.

The BBC's Nick Bryant
It is turning into something of an annus horribilis for Qantas, Australia's fabled Flying Kangaroo
The BBC's Nick Bryant

"They put two people in the seats in front of us. When I looked up they had their backs on the ceiling. My wife was the same - she crashed headfirst into the roof above us," he told the Reuters news agency.

"We had either the captain, or the first officer, in the area just behind us and he got caught unaware as well as, as well as a number of the cabin crew, one of who broke his leg as well."

The Australian flag-carrier prides itself on having a good safety record, but a spate of recent incidents has dented its image, correspondents say.

QANTAS INCIDENTS
7 October: Airbus A330 makes emergency landing in Western Australia after "sudden change in altitude" injures up to 40 people
2 Aug: 767 returns to Sydney after hydraulic fluid leak in wing
28 July: 737 returns to Adelaide with landing gear cover problem
25 July: 747 diverted to Manila after hole appears in fuselage

In July, a Qantas Boeing 747 flying from Hong Kong to Melbourne was forced to make an emergency landing after an oxygen cylinder caused an explosion which blew a large hole in the fuselage.

Later that month, one of the airline's Boeing 737s returned to Adelaide after a landing gear bay door failed to close. Days later, a Boeing 767 bound for Manila needed to return to Sydney after a hydraulic fluid leak was detected.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority subsequently launched a review of the airline. Officials said they had no evidence of falling safety standards, but that it was "prudent" to take a closer look.


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SEE ALSO
Qantas faces special safety probe
03 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Oxygen bottle behind Qantas blast
29 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Fault forces Qantas plane to land
28 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Hole forces Qantas plane to land
25 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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