Sat, Nov 15, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Officials ask if laptops caused Qantas plane dive


Australian air safety investigators are exploring whether interference from a US-Australian naval transmitter or even a passenger’s laptop caused a Qantas jetliner to nose-dive twice over the Australian coast last month, an official said yesterday.

Initial investigations of the midair emergency that injured 44 people, 13 seriously, indicated the Oct. 7 malfunction on the Airbus A330-300 was caused by a fault in a computer unit that uses sensors to detect the angle of the plane.

While that theory is still considered the most likely, investigators are looking into whether the fault could lie with electromagnetic interference from a low-frequency naval submarine communications transmitter on the northwest coast at Exmouth, near where the plane made its emergency landing.

The Naval Communications Station, Harold E. Holt, was built by the US Navy in the 1960s. It provides very low frequency radio transmissions to the US and Australian navies across the western Pacific and eastern Indian oceans.

Another possible source of the interference is portable electronic devices, such as cellphones, Australian Transport Safety Bureau director Kerryn Macaulay said. She said even those considered safe to operate during flights, such as laptop computers, are being investigated.

“Possible external sources of electromagnetic interference are being explored and assessed,” she said.

But even as investigators consider that theory, the plane’s three computer units — called air data inertial reference units (ADIRUs) — will be examined next week at manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corp’s factory in the US, the bureau said in a preliminary report.

The electromagnetic interference “is unlikely, especially if the problem is clearly identified during the ADIRU and the system testing,” Macaulay said.

Qantas said its own investigations found the likely cause of the emergency was a “manufacturer fault” in the computer unit.

The plane nose-dived 200m in 20 seconds, followed by a second drop of about 120m in 16 seconds.

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