air safety

Aug 20, 2013

Virgin Australia 777 in sudden brief dive near Melbourne Airport

The ATSB has somewhat tersely announced an investigation of an apparent autopilot

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

A Virgin Australia 777-300ER at LAX: Wikipedia Commons

The ATSB has somewhat tersely announced an investigation of an apparent autopilot failure in a Virgin Australia 777 ‘near’ Melbourne Airport last Thursday 15 August.

It says that “during the approach, the autopilot commanded a high rate of descent. The crew disconnected the autopilot and manually continued the approach.”

On the face of it, this was a matter of pilot vigilence paying off.  Airliners have been crashed by pilots that take too long to recognise automation failures or anomalies, and all credit to the Virgin Australia crew. They did what they are trained to do, which is to always be situationally aware of what is going on in an airliner, and to intervene when anything isn’t right, which is undoubtedly vital when close to the ground.

But for all its brevity, the ATSB says it will take until January next year to make its final report. This is a 361 seat Australian airliner of a type widely used world wide.  The ATSB is required to post a preliminary report no later than 15 September.

It should by then have cleared up what components in the 777’s systems caused this failure, and determined if other factors might have been in play.

That is what the world expects of a safety investigator.

An important issue for an incoming responsible minister after the 7 September election is not just correcting the appalling management of the ATSB as abundantly documented by the Senate committee inquiry into the ATSB’s disgraceful and flawed report into the Pel-Air crash, but its resourcing.

In a statement the airline says:

Virgin Australia is assisting the Air Transport Safety Bureau with an investigation of an international flight at Melbourne International Airport on Thursday 15 August.  The aircraft landed without incident after the crew disengaged the autopilot and manually flew the aircraft.  There was no danger to the aircraft or guests at any time.

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15 thoughts on “Virgin Australia 777 in sudden brief dive near Melbourne Airport

  1. Allan Moyes

    I’m glad this turned out well but reading the paragraph in the statement prompts me to a pet peeve of mine.

    “There was no danger to the aircraft or guests at any time.”

    Why do airlines (certainly QF) call us customers rather than passengers? I’m not shopping at Woolies after all, I’m being given “passage” in an aircraft. Also, what’s with this “guests”? Were the passengers – oops, customers, flying for free, courtesy of Virgin?

    Sorry for being so pedantic – perhaps it’s just the mood I’m in today. 🙂

  2. Dan Dair

    I’m with you on this.
    Calling me a customer instead of a passenger just niggles-something-at-the-back-of-my-mind;
    but GUESTS…..
    Oh my God, don’t get me started,! etc, etc, etc.

  3. Ken Borough

    For non-NSW residents, the Sydney Morning Herald has a quirky column dedicated to trivia and other delightful pieces of useless information. Recently, one correspondent suggested that he’d never again fly Virgin for he reckoned that he was the only person on the flight who had paid a fare as everyone else was a guest of the airline. Calling passengers ‘guests’ is surely the most ‘[email protected]’ practice ever foisted on the travelling public.

  4. MichaelS

    The platform announcements on Melbourne train stations now start with “Good morning customers …” thus making sure we are reminded every time that it is being run by a business making a profit out of what was previously a publicly-owned service. It used to be “Good morning passengers” which although not entirely accurate (while still on the platform we were not yet passengers) at least was not teeth-grittingly irritating.

  5. PaulM

    Wow! This post brought out the pedants.

    With that off my chest, I’ll make the observation that despite being called a guest of Virgin, I’ve never felt particularly welcome.

  6. Dan Dair

    I don’t think of this a pedantic (though I accept that it is in that direction)
    This, in my view, is the kind of reaction to ‘corporate-speak’ that most of us adults rarely get the forum to sound-off in.
    So there.! (waggles tongue in childish gesture.!!)

  7. Theoddkiwi

    So what is it that we actually want as a passenger/customer/guest?
    We want with the most leg room, with free food but that meets My specific taste, a complete inflight entertainment experience with the particular movies selection that I want to see. I want to be picked up from my house and hugged by every member of the ground staff and flight crew so I feel special and loved. I want to be greeted with my full title. We don’t want anyone sitting near me especially those pesky kids and drunk adults. I want to be first on and first off the aircraft. It must leave on time but arrive early with my bags ready for me as so as I reach the baggage carousel. I want to be able to take what ever carry on I want. Don’t call me a Passenger as that makes me feel like I am just one of the crowd. Don’t call me a Customer as that makes me feel like I am just there to make the airline money. Don’t call me a Guest as I am not, I paid for the ticket not you.
    Finally I want to pay next to nothing for my ticket and earn triple frequent flyer points so my next flight can be twice the distance of this one and I don’t have to pay any extra.
    All quite reasonable really.

  8. Jaeger

    I’m still trying to figure out what is “refreshing” about hardtack cookies and no tea.

  9. Ben Sandilands


    I think the essential issue in discussions like this is what is relevant to gu…er, customers, in air travel, and where on the value spectrum people will place their money.

    It’s definitely the issue in the airlines in this country.

    The discussion is the more urgent because perceptions and tastes are changing in those who pay for the fares, whether individuals or companies or public authorities.

    For myself, I’m not trying to change anyone’s value setting, in fact I’m very interested in what that setting may be, but I also think the discussion should be conducted without the fog of PR messaging and influence peddling.

    Personally, I prefer to be considered a traveller or a consumer, as well as all of the other nice things airlines say about me.

  10. Theoddkiwi

    I agree Ben, and it think Traveller is probably the best label as it is neither condescending or is it hot air. Its factual as one is in fact travelling from one place to another and it also has connotations of adventure, excitement, discovery, potential and all those sorts of things.
    The spectrum is wide and really a moving target both for the Traveler and the Airlines. But price will generally be the lead dampening ones expectations.
    I doubt we will be hearing the Flight Attendant announcing “Good afternoon Travellers” anytime soon as it also sounds like your aboard a space craft about to blast off to Alpha Centauri.

  11. Bear

    Wow! I’m amazed that a serious story of an a/p failure or glitch on a very common airliner, which but for the vigilance of the tech crew, had the potential to end up in very similar circumstances as the Asiana 772 at SFO, has degenerated into an episode of TV’s Grumpy Old Men, bitching about marketing-speak. That, and the length of time the ATSB takes to get a report out. Or likely how long it would take any of them to agree on a lunchtime pizza order.

    But my 2centz worth… Pax, guests, Travellers. How about “truth in marketing”? Lionair customers could be addressed as “good morning, Thrillseekers”. Ryanair flyers as “good morning, suckers” and so on. One could get quite creative “reality-matching” airlines with their customers.

  12. Dan Dair

    Theoddkiwi 10:42 am post
    There was a joke / tale told by a comedian on TV a couple of years ago about a UK low-fare coach company, running mostly London to various major regional cities.
    The company, MegaBus, has a similar kind of low fares model to Ryanair & Easyjet; allocating a proportion of the bus to very low fares for very advanced bookings.
    The company advertises (& actually offered) London to Manchester for £1.00. the punch line was then about the passenger feeling ‘ripped-off’ at having to pay a £0.50 pence booking fee.
    I agree with your post. By definition passengers want the most they can get for the least money.
    The Ryanair/low cost model is ‘what’s the worst that passengers are prepared to put up with, in order to reach their destination as cheaply as possible’.?
    The US Airways/full-fare model is ‘what do we need to include in a competitive market to secure bums-on-seats on our aircraft’.? (See US perspectives post)

  13. Allan Moyes


    I did start my post with how pleased I was that all had turned out well on this particular flight – didn’t really mean to “highjack” it. Sorry if I ruffled your feathers (or should that be “fur” with a moniker like Bear? 🙂 ) but it did bring some interesting comments to the table and I enjoyed reading them all.

    I do agree with Ben that a final report by January of next year seems a tad long but I am certainly not a technical expert so I have no idea what is involved. I just enjoy travelling in a plane, hopefully with a modicum of room and being thrown a snack now and then. I’m one of those flying nuts who will travel from BNE to MEL via ADL either as a customer, guest, passenger or livestock. I like the experience of being up above the clouds.

    At the risk of being labeled a grumpy old man (which I probably am, in any case), I enjoyed it even more in the 60’s and 70’s (except for the cigarette smoke) when it really was a different world.

    However there are still some wonderful experiences to be had today so I still enjoy it. Won’t fly the real LCC’s though!

    I’d travel up the pointy end if I could afford it but I am one of the majority who are the other side of the curtain (yes I know not all aircraft types have such barriers, but metaphorically speaking).

    I do like your alternatives for certain airlines like Ryanair though. Much LOL. I imagine the list would be almost endless.

    Time for my pills now 🙂

  14. Dan Dair

    This IS pedantic, which is why it took so long for me to admit to it…..
    A the checkout in my local supermarket, the staff have started saying “thank you for waiting” when you actually arrive at the till, if there’s been a queue. (which there usually is when I’m there)
    Having spent the best part of an hour wandering around the store, before placing my shopping on the conveyor, I don’t generally regard it as a sensible use of my time by that stage, to say ‘nuts to this’ & wander off to another shop instead.
    Despite a couple of enquiries, I have not yet been told what the anticipated alternative options (to waiting) are.?

    At least the staff are nice in there.

  15. Bear

    Allan… thanks for the apology for ruffling my fur. Not necessary, but appreciated anyway. I have to say that whilst modern-day marketing does my head in, this “guest vs customer vs passenger vs who knows what” is the least of my air travel related gripes.

    Worse was back in the days when I flew QF mainline more regularly than I do now (read: I can’t remember the last time I flew QF mainline) and they ran the Travolta safety video – the one with him singing the praises of QF pilots, at the time when QF management was doing its level best to marginalise them. The straight-faced hide of that was mind-blowing enough. Then, that same vid invited the passengers (if thats what we were called) to consult a member of The Team, if they needed/wanted anything. TEAM?? Really! That term is so overused these days, I felt like I was flying with an insurance company phone rep, or a washer/dryer salesman at Bing Lee or something. Maybe I’m out of touch, but I want to fly with a professional CREW.

    Cheers, Bear

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